The age of wonder : how the romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science

by Richard Holmes

Paper Book, 2008




New York : Vintage Books, 2010, c2008.


"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.

Media reviews

In his radiant new book, "The Age of Wonder," Holmes treats us to the amazing lives of the pioneering sailors and balloonists, astronomers and chemists of the Romantic era. Making good on the book's subtitle, he takes us on a dazzling tour of their chaotic British observatories and fatal explorations in African jungles, showing us "how the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science."
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In this big two-hearted river of a book, the twin energies of scientific curiosity and poetic invention pulsate on every page. Richard Holmes, the pre-eminent biographer of the Romantic generation and the author of intensely intimate lives of Shelley and Coleridge, now turns his attention to what Coleridge called the “second scientific revolution,” when British scientists circa 1800 made electrifying discoveries to rival those of Newton and Galileo. In Holmes’s view, “wonder”-driven figures like the astronomer William Herschel, the chemist Humphry Davy and the explorer Joseph Banks brought “a new imaginative intensity and excitement to scientific work” and “produced a new vision which has rightly been called Romantic science.”

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.

A writer's skill can make a lost world live, and Richard Holmes does that here. Like Davy's gas, The Age of Wonder gives us a whole set of "newly connected and newly modified ideas", a new model for scientific exploration and poetic expression in the Romantic period. Informative and invigorating, generous and beguiling, it is, indeed, wonderful.

User reviews

LibraryThing member bobmcconnaughey
Okay - finished the age of wonder while reading through a fit of insomnia early this morning. Richard Holmes' background is that of a literary historian/critic specializing in the romantic poets in particular. His approach works very well in this biographically grounded history of a distinct period in British cultural history. This age celebrated "the heroic" - whatever the field. And many of the major players, whether in science or literature or the battlefield, accepted this role, some far more avidly than others.

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.
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LibraryThing member janeajones
Once upon a time, long, long ago, I was pretty fascinated with science. I thought about being pre-med. I got my highest SAT score in Chemistry. Then I was hit in the face with higher mathematics which made absolutely no sense to me and included intensively long calculations and logarithmic tables and slide rules -- this was a few years before students actually were encouraged, and then required to buy calculators. That was it -- I did my math/science requirements in college by taking botany, psychology and physical science for liberal arts majors. Botany was somewhat interesting, but I could never really see through a microscope; the psychology professor was a sadist who insisted on all kinds of statistical analysis (thank god I had a boyfriend who was a psych major and got me through the labs); and phys sci was a bore. Obviously, I became an English major and never took another science course again. Had there been a course offered in the history of science and had Richard Holmes' splendid book, The Age of Wonder been one of the textbooks, I might have been inspired to complement my literary studies with some scientific studies.

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.
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LibraryThing member phollando
June 24th 1833 was the date when the word 'scientist' was arguably coined. At a meeting for the British Association for the Advancement of Science, William Whewell was addressing the packed Senate House on the nature of science when the applause died down one sole figure remained standing, and to the surprise of everyone present, it was that of the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He remarked of the members present in the room that the name they used for their profession was no longer appropriate, men knee deep in mud searching for fossils being called 'natural philosophers' didn't quite seem right and the other moniker 'men of science' hardly included the likes of Caroline Herschel; something better had to be devised. As an actual metaphysician himself Coleridge wanted a name that would more reflect the practical and hands-on nature of their work. Whewell's suggestion was that one could by analogy of art to artist go from science to scientist and thus the word was born.

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.
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LibraryThing member fdholt
Richard Holmes has written many books about romantic authors and poets. This is a natural extension of his earlier work since many learned men and women of the time had a curiosity about the world and how it worked. The main thrust of the book is the story of the Royal Society in the early 1800s (of which Ben Franklin was a member along many other famous scientists up to this day) and its longtime president, Joseph Banks (1743-1820). Holmes also covers the work of William and Caroline Herschel in astronomy, Humphry Davy and the safety lamp, Mungo Park’s explorations, and a host of supporting characters, including Mary Shelley and Thomas Beddoes.

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…”
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LibraryThing member Harlan879
A patchy but nonetheless interesting history of Romantic-era (1770-1830, roughly) English scientists and explorers, focusing on Banks, the Hershels, and Davy, and their impacts on writers and poets of the era. I hoped for a more clearly stated discussion of the way that the scientific progress changed the culture and world-view of literary figures, but despite the extensively researched history of the "two cultures" and their interconnections, I feel that Holmes got somewhat bogged down by relating the history and was unable to fully work through the sociological and psychological consequences of "Age of Wonder." There were some exceptions, such as the way that he connects Herschel's astronomical discoveries to the notion of "deep space", "deep time", and the minuteness of the Earth and humanity. Other particular strengths of the book are the amusing recounting of Banks' time on Tahiti, Davy's egotism, and the struggles of Caroline Hershel and Mary Shelley in that pre-feminist era.… (more)
LibraryThing member vguy
Kind of book that makes literacy worthwhile. There are still things to learn about the world, about the universe and about the people who have mapped, explored,discovered it.The stories of Herschel and Davy stand out. Davy i knew of, of course, his experiments with laughing gas and invention of the lamp, but how he invented the lamp, how he stopped short of really discovering anaesthetics, how he wrote poetry and was a tortured soul (difficult relationship with his society wife and with his protege Faraday). Herschel was just a name to me, but he really matters; a self-made genius who spent the early part of his life as an accomplished musician, a German who fled his oppressive family to come to England, made all his own instruments, was assisted by his feisty spinster sister who became a recognised astronomer in her own right (the first woman ever) and not only discovered and mapped the heavens like never before but created the basics of our current sense of the universe, its vast scale and age. And then there's Mungo Park, the pioneers of ballooning, Joseph Banks and a few more thrown in, all told with human insight, humour, scientific detail and even a bit sexy here and there. Indeed a wonder.… (more)
LibraryThing member hailelib
The Age of Wonder covers the period in British science from Captain Cook's voyage around the world with the young Joseph Banks sailing on the Endeavour as the expedition's naturalist up to shortly after an equally young Charles Darwin sailed on the Beagle as that expedition's naturalist. Richard Holmes focuses on a few of the leading figures of the time, including Banks, the Herschels (William and Caroline), Mungo Park, Davy, Mary Shelley (what ideas were current among literary,philosophical, and scientific circles that led to her famous novel?), Coleridge and his peers, and the next generation of scientists such as Faraday, Babbage, Darwin, and John Herschel along with Mary Somerville as a populariser of science.

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.
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LibraryThing member idiotgirl
Kindle. A great read. How we came to focus on those 'Eureka' moments in science. This focuses on such wonderful stories that weave together the science and the literature of the period--with some of my favorites Colderidge, the Shelleys. With focus on such topics as baloons, mine lamps, discovering comments and planets. Just a great book!!!… (more)
LibraryThing member RobertP
A very good British writer positions the Romantic flowering of British scientific discovery inside the wider Romantic movement. The book presupposes some knowledge of British literary history, and is a bit difficult to take at some points for that reason. But it is well written, entertaining, informative, and paints wonderful pictures of the human beings behind the story. Recommended if you like the history of science, or just plain good writing.… (more)
LibraryThing member ReadThisNotThat
Oh my goodness! I'm a fast reader and this book took me forever to read (I returned it a week overdue after renewing it once for an additional three weeks) but it was worth every minute.

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!
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LibraryThing member Jaylia3
This book is a fascinating voyage back to the Romantic Age in Europe when there were still far flung parts of the globe to explore, most of the chemical elements awaited discovery, and time and space were found to be much vaster than anyone had expected. Even more wonderfully, scientists and artists were not naturally at odds—chemist Humphry Davy and poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge were friends, Percy Bysshe Shelley attended science lectures at the Royal Society and a musician, William Herschel, became the leading astronomer of England. Poets looked to the brave new world of science for inspiration, and many scientists—including Davy and Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus—wrote poetry. While scientists were perfecting the inductive reasoning of Newton and Francis Bacon they also used poetic devices like analogies to advance their understanding and inspire their research. It was an exciting and unsettling time and that makes for a great reading experience.… (more)
LibraryThing member bigmoose
Holmes has written a detailed series of short biographies of the prominent individuals living in what he calls the "Age of Wonder". It is a period which he fits into the short 75 year span between the "Age of Discovery" and the "Romantic Scientific Discovery" period that follows. His "Age of Wonder" comprises roughly 1750 to 1825, or so.

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.
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LibraryThing member bezoar44
This wonderful history offers an account of British science in the Romantic era, told through the lives of three men. Joseph Banks, after traveling to Tahiti in 1769, returned to England and eventually became the president of the Royal Society. There, through his own patronage and by introducing bright young scientists to other prospective mentors, Banks played a leading role in the development of a network of English and Scottish explorers, biologists, chemists, astronomers, and other scientists -- and kept them in touch with colleagues on the Continent, even during the Napoleonic Wars. The other two major figures are William Herschel, the German-born astronomer with an improbably dedicated sister and an extraordinary gift for building accurate telescopes; and Humphrey Davy, chemist, popular lecturer, and inventor of the gauze safety lamp for use in coal mines. A host of engaging figures round out the story, ranging from balloonists, to poets, to miners, to aristocratic patrons.

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.
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LibraryThing member kacollin
Joseph Banks in paradise, William Herschel's discovery of Uranus... This book is awesome.
LibraryThing member robeik
Joseph Banks is a primary character in this book, starting with his startling discoveries when journeying with James Cook, and his raunchy interactions with the natives in the Pacific, before casting him in the role of promoter of science and discovery as President of the Royal Society. It focuses on the scientific work in the UK, especially that of William Herschel and his sister Caroline, Humphrey Davey and then also the young guns - Michael Faraday and John Herschel. Their work and lives are described as well as their interaction with the poets and writers of the day -Erasmus Darwin, Percy and Mary Shelly, Keats and others.

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.
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LibraryThing member m.gilbert
This is a fascinating, well-researched 500 page read of biography and history of science. It injects a good deal of soul into the scientific world of the Romantic Period. I really like how this age of scientific discovery is further illuminated, interestingly enough, by the human frailties of such brilliant minds: astronomers William and Caroline Herschel, chemist Humphrey Davy, and the naturalist and explorer Joseph Banks, just to name a few fascinating individuals. This history of science is far from dry. In fact, the intensity of their lives really makes them true Romantic figures in the poetic sense. The scientists drink and dine with the poets, consumed with just as much wonder and imagination and solitude as Coleridge and Keats. I was enthralled by the brief section on the movement known as Vitalism; I was ready to re-read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein all over again. Truly, I did not expect to be so affected by this book. I now want to read Oppenheimer's biography American Prometheus, which has rested on my shelf since forever.… (more)
LibraryThing member snarkhunt
I did not finish. I was not filled with wonder.
LibraryThing member fernig
The origins of the concepts of deep space and deep time. Romantic science. British science during Joseph Banks' presidency of the Royal Society. William Herschel, Sir Humphrey Davy. Eventual replacement by youngetr generation: John Herschel, Babbage, Darwin, Faraday. Good descriptions of Caroline Herschel (William's assistant and astronomer).… (more)
LibraryThing member rightantler
A wonderful time capsule of scientific and cultural history. The main characters of Joseph Banks, William Herschel and Humphrey Davy are surrounded by an amazing cast including Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and many many more. When I was at School I studied History from 1760 - 1914 centered on the Agrarian and Industrial Revolution with a focus on Politics. How much different would my future study and career choices have been had I read of Banks in Tahiti, Herschel discovering the night sky and Davy lighting the world below ground? The Age of Wonder is a very well titled read covering a the period before Charles Darwin, Faraday and John Herschel would be most prominent. If I were teaching the history of the period this would be mandatory reading!… (more)
LibraryThing member mnicol
Stunning. John Herschel has a battered memorial at the Grove Primary School in Claremont, Cape Town. "The Grove" was the name of the 'rather dilapidated country house', three miles north of Windsor to which his father (Sir William, the discoverer of Uranus) moved in 1786 and where he built his forty-foot telescope. Herschel entertained Darwin in Cape Town where he docked with the Beagle on his return voyage to England. Darwin did not like the Cape and, it seems, the Herschel's (who collected 'rare Cape bulbs' and had "rare and beautiful flowering plants" surrounding their dwelling "near the Table Mountain") never told him about fynbos.… (more)
LibraryThing member Doey
Mesmerising and compeling book. Holmes is an excellent writer who explains complicated scientific discoveries with clarity and refuses to let the thorough explainations stop the steady progress and complete enjoyment of this book. I didn't get a good night's sleep any of the three days it took to finish this book. It was imposible to put down. Names that one begrudginly memorized in high school come alive in this fine mixture of biography and science discovery. Makes me want to read more about each of his major characters. I stayed up late each night unable to put this fascinating book down. Only complaint is that I wish he had put maps in the book to find the variety of locations he reference in his book.… (more)
LibraryThing member gbsallery
Though fascinating on Davy, Herschel and Banks, and an admirable attempt to span the "two cultures" of art and science, this book draws too-tenuous parallels between these scientists and their contemporaries. There is much speculation, which feels as though the author is trying too hard to create analogies, when the actual content needs no such augmentation - the examples of Coleridge and Davy make it quite clear that the worlds of poetry and chemistry were not yet separate. This detracts slightly from what is otherwise an excellent book; well researched, readable and covering a fascinating period in the development of western society.

Could have done with a little more on the Royal Institution, too - but I'm biased.
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LibraryThing member pdill8
I rarely finish a non-fiction book. No matter how fascinating the subject matter, the writing must be exceptionally special to hold my attention. This is such a book. Not since "Undaunted Courage" have I been so swept up.
LibraryThing member EricKibler
This book covers the state of science in England from the late eighteenth century up to the voyage of Charles Darwin in the early 1830s. At that time there was a lot more cross-fertilization between science and art (particularly poetry) than there is now. It was an era where science, like any other high human endeavor, was expected to enrapture and ennoble the species and the spirit, rather than just unravel the truth.

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.
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LibraryThing member dasam
A fascinating history of pre-Victorian British science, its connections with Romanticism and the poets of that era, its preparation of the ground for the Victorian sciencs and hence for modern science. Thoughtful but approachble writing.


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