"The Age of Wonder" explores the earliest ideas of deep time and space, and the explorers of "dynamic science": an infinite, mysterious Nature waiting to be discovered. Three lives dominate the book: William Herschel, his sister Caroline, and Humphry Davy.
Richard Holmes aims to debunk the popular image ("myth" is his word) that the Romantic era was inherently "anti-scientific." Indeed, he argues, it was an era in which science was remarkably transformed by the spirit of the age. . . . [He] endeavors to dramatize how the "Romantic Generation" -- bracketed by Capt. James Cook's first voyage around the world in 1768 and Darwin's embarkation for the Galapagos Islands in 1831 -- achieved what amounted to a "second scientific revolution" (Coleridge's term), forever altering the course of scientific investigation. . . .
Mr. Holmes perhaps overstates the discontinuity between "Romantic science" and what came before and after, but he is right to stress the novel tone that insinuated itself into the project of science at the end of the 18th century. And he is right to seize the expeditions of discovery as chronological markers. It was a moment in which bold explorations -- cosmological as well as geographical -- changed our understanding of the world.
Astronomy, chemistry, scientific expedition , and, to a lesser extent, geology and electromagnetism are the featured sciences. The Herschel's astronomical ventures and Lyalls geologic forays into deep space and deep time respectively required educated Britons to rethink their place in the universe. The stories of the great natural history treks both created public heroes and a fascination with the world that seemed stranger than fiction. The British chemists, with Sir Humphrey Davy the lionized public face of British science at the fore, conclusively demonstrated that the "sensible interpretation" of the physical world was wrong. (ie fire was not an element but rather a chemical process). Additionally the chemists proved their social utility by making life safer and more convenient - perhaps the most dramatic example being Davy, with the aid of his assistant Michael Faraday, developing the Davy safety lamp for coal miners, based on his understanding of the principles of combustion, that made an incredibly hazardous occupation significantly safer.
British writers and scientists mixed both socially and "philosophically" - with Davy's friendship with the Lake poets being again the leading example. Holmes discusses the odd phenomenon of poets footnoting their verse with scientific asides - a practice begun by Erasmus Darwin, Charles's grandfather, and continued on through Shelley and Queen Mab! Davy wrote verse throughout his life (Southey was his initial poetic mentor) - and there are many examples of his poetry inspired both by nature, science and love.
The book closes with Darwin and the Beagle - signifying both a satisfying end to one era and the beginning of another even more contentious, arguably more productive, era in which science became increasingly more specialized and "professionalized."
The book is very nicely written, drawing heavily upon letters, memoirs and public writings of the protagonists. It is not so much a history of science as it is a history of an age in which science and society melded together more or less successfully, as demonstrated by the intertwined biographies of his main subjects.
Holmes presents the unfolding of the experimental world of applied science in England contemporary with the outpouring of Romantic literature from the 1780s to the 1830s. The Age of Wonder is wonderful cultural history combined with scientific biography. The biographical focuses of the book are William Herschel, the astronomer and microscope builder, who discovered the planet Uranus and the moons of Saturn; Humphrey Davy, whose experiments and discoveries in electricity and chemistry revolutionized the scientific world; and Sir Joseph Banks, who as a young man sailed around the world with Captain Cook, wrote an anthropological study of the Tahitians, and returned to England to become the longtime President of the Royal Society, encouraging and sponsoring a variety of scientific ventures (and literary ones -- he sponsored lecture series by Coleridge).
It's an age of the popularization of science with Davy and others giving wildly popular public demonstrations of their experiments and books being written for a general readership and even children about the new scientific principles being discovered. Man flies for the first time in hot air and hydrogen balloons -- the earth is seen from above and meteorology is born. Clouds become the focus for scientists as well as poets. William Herschel's sister Caroline uses her own telescope to discover comets and meteors and is paid by the crown to assist her brother in his sky-sweeping. Earth, air, fire and water are no longer the basic components of the universe -- it is discovered that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen; air has various elemental gases; the earth is wildly complex, and fire is not an element at all, but a means of transforming one form of matter into another. One of the burning philosophical and scientific issues is the nature of life itself -- can it be captured in some sort of essential form -- what role does electricity play in the vital force of life??
Holmes' earlier books are biographies of Enlightenment and Romantic literary figures -- Dr. Johnson, Shelley, and Coleridge. He integrates his wide range of knowledge about the Romantic authors and their interest in science, as well as their incorporation of scientific ideas and discoveries into their literary works, into The Age of Wonder. This is a fascinating and revelatory work about the culture of early 19th c. England and Europe.
This book deals with how we progressed from the pure philosophy of the inductive reasoning of Bacon and Newton and the rationalism and foundationalism of Descartes, through the independently wealthy and crown sponsored men of Royal Society to the more familiar profession of science of Whewhell, Charles Darwin and beyond. At the heart of this book are biographies of three of the guiding lights of Romantic science. The first is of Sir Joseph Banks whose botanical voyages in Tahiti with Captain Cook opened his eyes to a world of experience and adventure which, when he himself was crippled by gout and unable to travel, encouraged in others as the President of the Royal Society. The second is William Herschell and his redoubtable sister Caroline who brought skill, ingenuity and a complete thoroughness to the science of astrology through regular nightly sweeps of the sky and better telescopic technology that helped them discover Uranus and two of its moons as well as two moons of Saturn and a catalogue of over 500 new nebulae. Finally we meet Sir Humphry Davy and his experiments with gases and electricity made him a veritable rock star.
Part of what makes this period so exciting is that the arts and sciences had an almost symbiotic existence. Erasmus Darwin and Humpry Davy both composed poetry whilst the likes of Coleridge, Wordsworth and Shelly wrote pamphlets on science and natural philosophy. It was a synthesis that was mutually beneficial which makes me think that Stephen Hawking was all the more wrong when in his most recent book 'The Grand Design' he made the pronouncement that 'philosophy is dead' a somewhat ironically self-defeating philosophical stance.
It was an exciting period in history, the exploration of Africa and the islands of the South Pacific. The advent of flight with the early experiments in Ballooning. There was also an exciting cast, not just the poets and triumvirate of scientists mentioned above but the likes of Michael Faraday, Thomas Beddoes, Mungo Park and the rest. Holmes infuses the narrative with his own sense of wonder and as the book ends with Charles Darwin heading off on the HMS Beagle he leaves us wanting to know what comes next.
The writing style was informal and interesting, not typical of most scholarly books. Knowledge of science is not necessary to understand the book. The only in-text footnotes are necessary to explain the concepts or expand on the text. The normal footnoted items were listed as references in the back of the book along with an excellent index, a bibliography divided by subject, and a cast list (to easily keep track of all the minor players in the story). The illustrations are in full color and added to the enjoyment of the book.
The book’s enthusiasm for science can be summed up by William Wordsworth – “My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky…”
Although I read this over several months with other reads between sections, in the end, I found it to be a great look at this period in the history of science. At the beginning of Banks career, first as a naturalist and then as the very influential President of the Royal Society, there was not really a separation of the various branches of intellectual life. The Society's lectures were not only attended by observers and experimenters in science but by poets, essayists, and interested members of the general public. Many of the literary figures dabbled in science and many of the scientists wrote poetry. In fact the very word scientist was invented towards the end of this period, being first suggested at an early meeting of the BAAS.
Not only am I interested in learning more about the various scientists mentioned in Holmes' narrative but I'm also interested in reading more about Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, the Shelleys, Byron, and Keats, and their works, but most especially the essays of Coleridge. This is a book I would like to have on my own shelves but, alas, it must go back to the library.
Holmes' exploration of how the sciences began to flourish during the Romantic generation is incredibly interesting and covers everything from astronomy to anthropology, biology to chemistry, and everything in between. At no point was I ever bored by this book and everytime I put it down I looked forward to opening it up again.
Now, to be honest with you, I'm a big fan of non-fiction books and a big fan of science books. If I weren't already a big fan of these types of books I'm not sure I would've lasted through the entire thing. It is a long book with a lot of information. But for geeky people like me? It's perfect!
Holmes grandly recounts the history of Joseph Banks' joining the James Cook saling expedition around the world, including the lengthy stopover in Tahiti. Upon Banks' return to London he eventually becomes president of the Royal Society and is the one who guides the scientific community acceptance of William Herschel's discovery of a new planet (Uranus). The Herschel story makes up the second chapter of the book.
After those two interesting biographical histories, I lost interest in the midst of the ballooning craze and the chemistry advances by Davy, that followed.
The detail in these latter tedious subjects was too much for me and I had to put it down. The first half of the book, however, was good enough for me to give it 3 stars anyway.
Holmes is a literary historian, and brings to his account a finely-tuned sense of how scientists' discoveries influenced Romantic poets and writers, and also how much the scientists and writers had in common. Holmes has a particular talent for bringing alive the emotional and intellectual texture of his subjects' lives. In his prologue, Holmes notes that the period gave us the "the dazzling idea of the solitary scientific 'genius', thirsting and reckless for knowledge, for its own sake and perhaps at any cost." But as his story unfolds, it becomes clear that social networks enabled the flowering of Romantic science, and that their influence extended even to the next generation, which included such giants as Michael Faraday, John Herschel, and Charles Darwin.
The age was one where man was looking to find an alternative to God. The edges of the universe were pushed back with bigger and better telescopes, and yet they could not find heaven. The dangerous conditions in coal mining where overcome with the invention of the Davy lamp. Dark was turned into light by harnessing electricity. It laid the foundation for the work of Charles Darwin and the further exploitation of the earth.
I enjoyed reading the book, and learnt a lot about this period in history. I've come away with a different view of Banks (a bit of a dirty old man), an appreciation of astronomy (although not it's motivations), motivation to put more into my own work (they worked hard), and a good perspective on the foundations of modern scientific methods. If for you, like me, poetry is a bit of a bore you can skip over these bits.
Could have done with a little more on the Royal Institution, too - but I'm biased.
Key figures dealt with in the book are John Banks and his voyage to Tahiti, William and Caroline Herschel and their telescopes, the balloonists who pioneered manned flight, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, poet and science buff William Taylor Coleridge, and chemist Humphry Davy.
Particularly interesting are the sexual license discovered and participated in by Banks in Tahiti, the role of Caroline Herschel as one of the first respected female scientists, and the wild nitrous oxide parties (disguised as experimentation) thrown by Humphry Davy.
I had read Darwin's On the Origin of Species recently, and it was enlightening to see exactly how he fit into his time.