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The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science Paperback – 3 Sep 2009


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



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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 x 3.7 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (77 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 13,868 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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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

98 of 103 people found the following review helpful By Henry Turner on 17 Dec 2008
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 By D. P. Mankin TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 3 April 2009
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 By G. van Vuuren on 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 By Clare Topping on 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 By ScienceFaction on 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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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Didier TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 16 Feb 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
There is no shortage of positive reviews of this book, on the contrary, and yet I felt compelled to add another. In part that's because I tend to write a review of whatever book I read, good or bad, but in this case I absolutely had to set down in writing how lovely a book this is. In school I never really liked sciences: mathematics was a bore, chemistry as dull as can be, and what the point of physics was I never really grasped (which may be due to the fact that we were given exercises such as 'If a man jumps from a 122m high steeple at what speed will he hit the ground?', the answer to which always seemed irrelevant to me). I was interested in history, literature and languages, and it seemed quite logical to me that no two people could be further apart than a scientist and a poet.

Not so! Richard Holmes has succeeded where a dozen science teachers failed: to awaken an interest, I might even say an enthusiasm, for science in me. I was absolutely enthralled by the wonderful story he so expertly and fluently tells, of this glorious period where there was still so much uncharted territory, and entire continents were just black spots on a map. The lives of people like Sir Joseph Banks, William and Caroline Herschel, Humphry Davy and Mungo Park are as intoxicating reading matter as any adventure story, and it's all true too! In a sense one discovers that these great men of science are on the one hand humans just like you or me, with their shortcomings and defaults, but on the other hand different, if only in the singleminded (not to say obsessive) way in which they pursue their quest with extraordinary perseverance. It's all very intoxicating stuff to read about, I wish there were more history books that achieved the same high standard.
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