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The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science [Paperback]

Richard Holmes
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (75 customer reviews)
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The Age of Wonder The Age of Wonder 4.6 out of 5 stars (75)
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Book Description

3 Sep 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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  • Winner of the Royal Society Prize for Science Books 2009.



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The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science + The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future 1730-1810 + Science: A History 1543 - 2001
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Product details

  • Paperback: 380 pages
  • Publisher: HarperPress; first edition (3 Sep 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007149530
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007149537
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (75 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 19,671 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Richard Holmes is Professor of Biographical Studies at the University of East Anglia. He is a Fellow of the British Academy, has honorary doctorates from UEA, Kingston University and the University of East London, and was awarded an 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, and 'Dr Johnson & Mr Savage' won the James Tait Black Prize. 'Coleridge: Darker Reflections' won the Duff Cooper Prize and the Heinemann Award. He has published two studies of European biography, 'Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer' in 1985, and 'Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer' in 2000. 'The Age of Wonder' won the Royal Society Science Book Prize 2009 in the UK, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Non-Fiction 2010 in the USA.

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Review

'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

‘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 … 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.’ Oliver Sacks

'"The Age of Wonder" gives us… a new model for scientific exploration and poetic expression in the Romantic period. Informative and invigorating, generous and beguiling, it is, indeed, wonderful' Jenny Uglow, Guardian

'This is a book to linger over, to savour the tantalising details of the minor figures… "The Age of Wonder" allows readers to recapture the combined thrill of emerging scientific order and imaginative creativity’ Lisa Jardine, Financial Times

--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

Review

‘“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” Wordsworth recalled, thinking of the fall of the Bastille in 1789. But Richard Holmes's exuberant group biography celebrates the scientific revolution that preceded and outsoared the political one, changing life, the universe and everything in the last decades of the 18th century… 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. He believes that we must engage the minds of young people with science by writing about it in a new way, entering imaginatively into the biographies of individual scientists and showing what makes them just as creative as poets, painters and musicians. The Age of Wonder is offered, with due modesty, as a model, and it succeeds inspiringly’ John Carey, Sunday Times ‘The Age of Wonder gives us...a new model for scientific exploration and poetic expression in the Romantic period. Informative and invigorating, generous and beguiling, it is, indeed, wonderful’ Jenny Uglow, Guardian ‘vividly conveys the compelling fusion of art and science in the 18th century...this is a book to linger over, to savour the tantalising details of the minor figures...The Age of Wonder allows readers to recapture the combined thrill of emerging scientific order and imaginative creativity’ Lisa Jardine, Financial Times ‘If ever there was an argument for a biographical analysis of complex scientific and technological history, this is it...well paced and rich in detail...Heartbreaking accounts of hope and fears, ambitions and disappointments dance along the pages. Even the choice of pictures gives us new insights into old favourites...There is no dry page in this visceral, spirited and sexy account’ The Times ‘Richard Holmes's stellar collective biography...gives a gripping account of the scientific research that inspired a sense of wonder in poets and experimenters alike....fascinating...this beautifully crafted book deserves all the praise it will undoubtedly attract. Well-researched and vividly written The Age of Wonder will fascinate scientists and poets alike’ Literary Review ‘Holmes triumphantly shows the Romantic age was one of symbiosis rather than opposition...no biographer is better than Holmes at evoking the thrill of the chase....elegant ....fascinating...entrancing’ Sunday Telegraph ‘Exhilarating...instructive and delightful...finely observed...generous and hugely enjoyable’ Daily Telegraph ‘Romanticism and Science are justly reunited in Richard Holmes's new book....a revelation....thrilling’ Independent --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
97 of 102 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
I'm not a scientist. I have only a passing interest in the history of science. However, I'm c250 pages in and I am gripped. Holmes has the narrative skill of a great novelist, conjuring worlds and characters out of what could have so easily have been dry facts. Starting with Joseph Banks' experiences in Tahiti (he travelled as part of Cook's expedition), Holmes takes the reader into the mindset of the European encountering new, unknown worlds. In particular - in this case - their complex responses to the Tahitians' more open attitudes towards sex and sexuality. And that is one of the greatest strengths of the book. Whether it's dealing with Herschel and the discovery or Uranus or Davy and his lamp, The Age of Wonder is as much about the late 18th/early 19th century mind as it is about the science and scientists. Indeed, the book sees science through the eyes of the romantic movement (and a Britain in love with romanticism), so Coleridge, Keats and the Shelleys become major players in the narrative. Despite the focus on Herschel and Davy and their particular discoveries, the reader is compellingly immersed in a far wider exploration of ideas and culture in this period. The widespread excitement that scientific discovery generated is palpable and you can't help feeling that we have lost something very important in a world where science and the arts are so often perceived as near polar opposites. Wholeheartedly recommended to anyone in search of a rattling good read this Christmas, especially those who don't think that science is their pigeon.
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48 of 52 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding 3 April 2009
By D. P. Mankin TOP 500 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover
I was given this as a Christmas present. Richard Holmes crafts a fascinating story that brings fully to life the period covered (late 18th and early 19th centuries). I was hooked from the first page as the exploits, discoveries and tribulations of Joseph Banks, William and Caroline Herschel, Mungo Park, Humphry Davy and a cast of other leading 'scientists' were woven together in a wonderful tapestry (no pun intended). Richard Holmes' prose is fluent and captivating. This is one book that really lives up to the blurb on the cover. Read it!
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35 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A magnificent read 29 Mar 2009
Format:Hardcover
There are plenty books written on modern science, exploration (geographical and scientific), fledgling scientific breakthroughs, romantic poetry, human psychology and biographies of major scientific protagonists (with all their vanities and petty jealousies, as well as their soft, fuzzy side) - but all this in ONE book? It's a masterpiece, beautifully written, wittily observed and carefully footnoted. Every page a delight.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Collection of Characters 2 Aug 2010
Format:Paperback
I had coveted this book for some time, thinking that it could almost be considered a follow-on from, if a more scientific (rather than industrial) version of Jenny Uglow's Lunar Men. However, although this was what I expected, it was not what I got.

I had ups and downs with this book. I found the first chapter covering Joseph Banks trip Tahiti a little difficult to get into and wondered if I had added the wrong book to my wish list. However, I think this is just me, having read about Banks as a Botanist, I guess I expected more botany and less anthropology. Once I got part way through the second chapter, focussing on William and Caroline Herschel I was hooked. I discovered about explorers and scientists (although that term was apparently a bit of a divisive subject) that I knew little or nothing about - Mungo Park, the various balloonists, even William Herschel was merely a name prior to this book.

The author skillfully weaves the characters in and out of the chapters. The aforementioned Joseph Banks appears in and out as president of the Royal Society, appropriately feted as a scientific talent spotter and mentor. Then we move onto the life of Humphrey Davy, and, to a lesser extent Michael Faraday, with guest appearances from the likes of Babbage and Mary Somerville. Also interwoven are the great poets and writers of the day; Shelley, Byron and Davy's great friend, Coleridge.

My only complaint from the book is that there is perhaps too much page room given to the poets and, indeed the poetry of, for example, Davy. It seems that there is so much of interest with the scientific figures and the legacy they left that it felt as though the stories of the scientists were sacrificed for poetry - perhaps that is just the miserable scientist in me!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Genesis of Modern Science 17 Nov 2010
Format:Paperback
For those interested in how we know what we know, this is a fascinating book. The extraordinary fact that until the first manned balloons took off, no one had ever seen the world from above, and that was relatively recently. The speed with which discoveries occurred is remarkable. The certainty that the protagonists had that they would make new discoveries is also surprising. Although the stories are certainly interesting, the style is sometimes a little repetitive - phrases are reused and I sometimes found myself thinking I had already read a passage when in fact it was simply restating something said a few lines, paragraphs or pages before. All the same, very readable and a strong narrative - something I always look for in history.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A time of gentle enlightenment 14 Aug 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book explains the major scientific discoveries of the romantic period ,the formation of the 'Royal Society' & the realisation that science was useful to mankind . The books follows the lives of important pioneers & their dedication to their subject . Good to read before R.Dawkins [Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful piece of non-fiction. Entrancing.
As a scientist/engineer who also has a passion for the arts, this book spoke to me as no other non-fiction book ever has. It really is a 'page-turner'. Read more
Published 2 days ago by Mr. David J. Watson
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Very interesting book.
Published 2 months ago by Mr D Waugh
3.0 out of 5 stars A series of well written biographies, though sometimes lacked focus
I bought this book on Kindle after catching a glimpse of it in a book store, thinking it's mainly about the science in the Romantic period, but in fact, it's about the people... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Just Arthur
5.0 out of 5 stars Easy and enjoyable read
A wonderful book with a romantic style of writing to complement the era about which it writes. For those who wish to read around the core science and purely out of interest!
Published 2 months ago by Anna H.
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written
I genuinely could not put it down. What could have been a very dry history of a very important time for our view of the world turned out to be full of human foibles, dramas and... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Bertilak Hautdesert
5.0 out of 5 stars Wow! Historic science brought to human terms!
I actually purchased this hard cover book by accident, thinking I was getting an E-book for my Kindle. But I'm certainly not sorry, as this author is brilliant! Read more
Published 3 months ago by Mr. J. H. Wheeler
5.0 out of 5 stars Connections through Science and Literature
I found this very absorbing, especially as the movers and shakers of the 18th and 19th century were so influential on each other in a variety of unexpected ways.
Published 4 months ago by V. Bodington
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book, and well written
Brilliant writing gives you a real sense of the period. I found the sections of Banks, the Herschels and Davy completely gripping. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Chess Quant
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best books on the history of science
When The Age of Wonder was released a few years ago to many rave reviews, it was not long before it found its way onto my reading list. Read more
Published 6 months ago by S. Meadows
4.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic first half...
...then it seemed to run out of steam and then has taken me a year to finish it. However, it's well worth reading.
Published 6 months ago by Richard Wilkinson
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