The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The title of this book could just as easily read The Age of Wonder: How the General Reader Will Discover the Beauty and Terror of Science. I just flat out loved this book. Holmes is an engaging biographer above all, and the principal "characters" of this book leap to life as engagingly as any in a novel. Joseph Banks, William Herschel, Caroline Herschel, Humphry Davy -- I had no more than a passing knowledge of any of these figures before reading The Age of Wonder, but now I have a vivid sense of their lives, preoccupations, and above all, their uniquely brilliant minds.
I think, even more extraordinary than rekindling the reader's awe at scientific discovery (and awe certainly abounds -- Thrilling balloon voyages! Solo treks into the jungle! Crazed astronomers peering into deep space! Well-heeled literati huffing nitrous oxide!)is Holmes' ability to render the context for these discoveries and the ripples they made in artistic thought as well. It turns out that prominent Romantic thinkers and poets such as Coleridge and the Shelleys and Keats cared deeply about questions of the Universe and how it came to be and how science and art should treat the central subject of the human soul and a human God. Who knew?! Well, actually, I didn't really know this. Or, more accurately, hadn't considered it at length. I loved the chorus that The Age of Wonder creates: scientists, philosophers, and writers all approaching the same questions from their own angles, debating vigorously and oftentimes admiringly along the way.
Holmes shows us a band of scientists who are only just discovering their identities as "scientists" (indeed, the term is actually coined in the events of the book), finding a way to exist and have relevance in civic life. Simultaneously, he reveals some of the most beloved poets and novelists of the period articulating the terror and hope of science in their own works. And, and....well, and lots more.
Before I give anything else away, you should probably go and read this book.
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