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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science (Vintage) » User review

When poets made their peace with scientists . . .

  • Oct 14, 2010
Rating:
+3
. . . . Or natural philosophers as they were known throughout the period Richard Holmes calls "The Age of Wonder"--approximately 1770-1840.   In fact, the term scientist was suggested (as a formation parallel that of artist) at an 1833 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which was started by the young generation of scientists straining against the aristocratic constraints of royalty-driven amateur science.

But as Holmes tells in his sparkling group biography, there was good British science done in this period, from Joseph Banks' anthropological and botanical notes (he never did edit them into publication in his lifetime) taken during Captain Cook's visit to Tahita in 1769-1771, to John Herschel's astronomical observations mapping the Southern Hemisphere star-scape in the 1830s.   In fact, John was following in the footsteps of his father William, who vastly expanded the known population of the Northern Hemisphere with his painstaking methods and his meticulously-crafted telescopes that let him see things not yet seen, such as the planet Uranus--and possibly life on the moon.  

This kind of searching wonder was the codeword for the age, as Holmes has titled his book, and he shows scientists like Herschel in astronomy and Humphrey Davy in chemistry crafting the scientific principles that succeeding generations would follow at the same time as they were exploring ways of sharing their sense of wonder in speculation and poetry.  Not all the speculation panned out.  Herschel's suggestion that the perfectly-shaped craters he could see better than any other human being had to be man-made because of their shape was of course wrong, but not his realization that telescopes would explore beyond the solar system by gathering more light, not magnifying at a higher power, and that there were galaxies beyond galaxies in deep space (a term he coined).  Holmes larger point is gracefully embedded throughout:  the language of wonder and poetry expressed and advanced the science in ways and places it could not go without.

Today we not only expect these disciplines to occupy different buildings on the university campus but to barely share the same language.    In the Age of Wonder, though, the language was reaching in both directions, as scientists befriended poets (Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley--and her husband--are main characters throughout the book), as poets tried to explain the results and impacts of groundbreaking in verse, and as scientists themselves wrote in verse and expressed radical ideas in words foreign to the dry laboratory language we expect today.

These men (and women like Carolyn Herschel who was an astronomer in her own right if not given the highlights of her brother and nephew) were struggling to express their wonder at the "beauty and terror" (as Holmes' subtitles it in the UK version I read) of what they saw and work out the political, cultural, psychological,, theological, and personal implications of where their observations, experiments, and results were taking them.   Like them, Holmes' states the science here in understandable terms, and maps out those far-ranging implications outside the laboratory in historical research and language that justifies his title and his topic.   Laymen (a term the Romantic generation didn't use as they were just crafting the professions of science) in science, history, or literature will all understand and enjoy this wonderful study.

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More The Age of Wonder: The Romanti... reviews
review by . April 21, 2010
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 …
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I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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Amazon Exclusive: Oliver Sacks on The Age of Wonder

Oliver Sacks is the author of Musicophilia, Awakenings,The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and many other books, for which he has received numerous awards, including the Hawthornden Prize, a Polk Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and lives in New York City, where he is a practicing neurologist. Read his exclusive guest review of The Age of Wonder:

I am a Richard Holmes addict. He is an incomparable biographer, but in The Age of Wonder, he rises to new heights and becomes the biographer not of a single figure, but of an entire unique period, when artist and scientist could share common aims and ambitions and a common language--and together create a "romantic," humanist science. We are once again on the brink of such an age, when science and art will come together in new and powerful ways. For this we could have no better model than the lives of William and Caroline Herschel and Humphry Davy, whose dedication and scientific inventiveness were combined with a deep sense of wonder and poetry in the universe. Only Holmes, who is so deeply versed in the people and culture of eighteenth-century science, could tell their story with such verve and resonance for our own time.

(Photo © Elena Seibert)

--This text refers to theHardcoveredition.
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ISBN-10: 1400031877
ISBN-13: 978-1400031870
Author: Richard Holmes
Genre: History, Science
Publisher: Vintage
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