- Paperback: 380 pages
- Publisher: HarperPress (Sept. 3 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0007149530
- ISBN-13: 978-0007149537
- Product Dimensions: 13 x 3.7 x 19.7 cm
- Shipping Weight: 798 g
- Average Customer Review: 6 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #108,464 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Age of Wonder Paperback – Mar 12 2013
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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 vistas…it 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.
Top Customer Reviews
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...Similarly, it seems to me impossible to understand fully the contemporary debates about the environment, or climate change, or genetic engineering, or alternative medicine, or extraterrestrial life, or the future of consciousness, or even the existence of God, without knowing how these arose from the hopes and anxieties of the Romantic generation.
"But perhaps most important, right now, is the changing appreciation of how scientists themselves fit into society as a whole, and the nature of the particular creativity they bring to it. We need to consider how they are increasingly vital to any culture of progressive knowledge, to the education of young people (and the not so young), and to our understanding of the planet and its future. Foe this, I believe science needs to be presented and explored in a new way. We need not only a new history of science, but an enlarged and imaginative biographical writing about individual scientists...
"The old, rigid debates and boundaries - science versus religion, science versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics - are no longer enough. We should be impatient with them. We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective. Above all, perhaps, we need the three things that a scientific culture can sustain: the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe. And that is how this book might possibly end." And indeed so it does.
Congratulations to Richard Holmes on a brilliant achievement. Bravo!
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. Humphry Davy writes of his exploration of nitrous oxide: `By degrees as the pleasurable sensations increased, I lost all connection with external things; trains of vivid visible images rapidly passed through my mind and were connected with words in such a manner as to produce perceptions perfectly novel. I existed in a world of newly connected and newly modified ideas.'
But it is the detail of Humphry Davy's invention of the miner's safety lamp that focussed my attention. Even more than the fact that the best mould for making a metal lens for a telescope involved pounded horse-dung.
Read, too, about the first balloonists, who went soaring from the earth in the 1780s. They learned far more about the earth than they expected, in their search for knowledge of the skies. And, there is also a chapter about Mungo Park's (1771-1806) expeditions in Africa. I had not previously heard of him.
The journeys are emotional, imaginative and intellectual as well as physical. There's a thought-provoking chapter entitled `Dr Frankenstein and the Soul', and consider the `Vitalism' debate. We now know that galvanic and electrical energy cannot create life from inert matter, but what imaginary monsters have been created as a consequence?
I thoroughly enjoyed this book: discovered some new learning of my own as well as finding a new context for some previously acquired knowledge.
In 1833, William Whewell coined the word `scientist'. Perhaps coining this term, even though it wasn't widely adopted until some years later, really defines the end of the period of Romantic science.