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The Age Of Wonder: How The Romantic Generation Discovered The Beauty And Terror Of Science [Paperback]

Richard Holmes
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Sept. 28 2009
Shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and winner of the Royal Society Prize for Science Books, Richard Holmes's dazzling portrait of the age of great scientific discovery is a groundbreaking achievement. The book opens with Joseph Banks, botanist on Captain Cook's first Endeavour voyage, who stepped onto a Tahitian beach in 1769 fully expecting to have located Paradise. Back in Britain, the same Romantic revolution that had inspired Banks was spurring other great thinkers on to their own voyages of artistic and scientific discovery - astronomical, chemical, poetical, philosophical - that together made up the 'age of wonder'. In this breathtaking group biography, Richard Holmes tells the stories of the period's celebrated innovators and their great scientific discoveries: from telescopic sight to the miner's lamp, and from the first balloon flight to African exploration.

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'Rich and sparkling, this is a wonderful book.' Claire Tomalin, Guardian, Books of the Year 'Exuberant...Holmes suffuses his book with the joy, hope and wonder of the revolutionary era. Reading it is like a holiday in a sunny landscape, full of fascinating bypaths that lead to unexpected succeeds inspiringly.' John Carey, Sunday Times 'Thrilling: a portrait of bold adventure among the stars, across the oceans, deep into matter, poetry and the human psyche.' Peter Forbes, Independent 'A glorious blend of the scientific and the literary that deserves to carry off armfuls of awards and confirms Holmes's reputation as one on the stellar biographers of the age.' Dominic Sandbrook, Daily Telegraph, Books of the Year 'No question - the non-fiction book of the year is Richard Holmes's "The Age of Wonder", not only beautifully written, but also kicking open a new perspective on the Romantic age.' Andrew Marr, Observer, Books of the Year 'Itself a wonder - a masterpiece of skilful and imaginative storytelling.' Michael Holroyd, Guardian, Books of the Year 'Dazzling and approachable. It's a brilliantly written account...original in its connections and very generous in its attention.' Andrew Motion, Guardian, Books of the Year 'Witty, intellectually dazzling and wholly gripping.' Richard Mabey, Guardian, Books of the Year 'So immediate and so beguiling is Holmes's prose that we are with him all the way.' Sunday Telegraph 'Brimming with anecdote, Holmes's enthusiastic narrative amply conveys the period's spirited, often reckless pursuit of discovery with an astute balance of technical detail and the wider cultural picture.' Financial Times

About the Author

Richard Holmes is a Fellow of the British Academy, and was Professor of Biographical Studies at the University of East Anglia (2001-2007). He was awarded the OBE in 1992. His first book, 'Shelley: The Pursuit', won the Somerset Maugham Prize in 1974. 'Coleridge: Early Visions' won the 1989 Whitbread Book of the Year Award, and 'Dr Johnson and Mr Savage' won the James Tait Black Prize. 'Coleridge: Darker Reflections' won the Duff Cooper Prize and the Heinemann Award. He lives in London and Norfolk with the novelist Rose Tremain.

Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
While explaining "how the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science," Richard Holmes focuses on what "became the first great age of the public scientific lecture, the laboratory demonstration and the introductory textbook, often written by women. It was the age when science began to be taught to children, and the `experimental method' became the basis of a new, secular philosophy of life, in which the infinite wonders of Creation (whether divine or not) were increasingly valued for their own sake...Finally, it was the age which challenged the elite monopoly of the Royal Society, and saw the foundation of scores of new scientific institutions, mechanics institutes and `philosophical' societies."

Although Holmes poses and then responds to hundreds of questions or has others do so, "the book remains a narrative, a piece of biographical storytelling. It tries to capture something of the inner life of science, its impact on the heart, as well as on the mind. In the broadest sense it aims to present scientific passion, so much if it which is summed up in that childlike, but infinitely complex word, [begin italics] wonder [end italics]."

In the Epilogue, offering an especially eloquent and compelling conclusion to his book, Holmes acknowledges that "there is a particular problem with finding endings in science. Where do these science stories really finish? Science is truly a relay race, with each discovery handed on to the next generation. Even as one door is closing, another door is already being thrown open....

"But science is now continually reshaping its history retrospectively. It is starting to look back and rediscover its beginnings, its earliest traditions and triumphs, but also its debates, its uncertainties and its errors...
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By Jennifer Cameron-Smith TOP 50 REVIEWER
Richard Holmes dates the period of Romantic science as extending (at least symbolically) between two celebrated voyages of exploration: Captain Cook's expedition around the world aboard the Endeavour which began in 1768, and Charles Darwin's voyage to the Galapagos Islands aboard the Beagle, which began in 1831.

While this is a group biography, covering a number of different scientists at work during this period, the lives and discoveries of three men are central. First is Joseph Banks (1743-1820) who, as a young botanist, was on board the Endeavour when she reached Tahiti in 1769. Banks features throughout much of the book: he was President of the Royal Society for over 40 years from 1778.
The other two central figures are William Herschel (1738-1822) and Humphry Davy (1778-1829). These men were stars of what Coleridge called the `second scientific revolution' in his Philosophical Lectures of 1819. Richard Holmes considers that this second revolution was primarily inspired by a series of breakthroughs in astronomy and chemistry.

`The notion of an infinite, mysterious Nature, waiting to be discovered or seduced into revealing all her secrets, was widely held.'

We follow a number of different journeys in this book: Banks, and the `ambiguous paradise' of Tahiti. William Herschel's ambition was to construct a reflector telescope, an instrument that `might plunge deep down into the sky and explore it like an unplumbed ocean of stars.' Hershel's work, together with that of his sister Caroline - herself an astronomer - is covered in detail here.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By Paolo TOP 1000 REVIEWER
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.
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