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5.0 out of 5 stars
Scientists in an exciting age, 3 Jan 2010
The principal characters in the book are Joseph Banks (Tahiti), Humphrey Davy (Lamp) and William Hershel (Uranus). The text starts in 1769 and ends around the 1820's with the deaths of the main heroes. The author is Professor of Biological Studies at the University of East Anglia and links the scientists with the subjects of his early works like Shelley and Coleridge.
A multitude of fascinating details appear about the lives of the main scientists and their families, together with cameo sketches of a wider cast including Michel Faraday and Charles Babbage. Banks and Davy were the presidents of the Royal Society during the period and much is learned about this and other scientific societies of the period.
The science is focused on astronomy with the Hershels, William, Caroline and John, and on chemistry with Davy. Beyond the discovery of the planet Uranus, William Hershel discovered infrared radiation for which the recently launched infra-red Hershel Space Telescope is named. His sister Caroline made independent discoveries of several comets and his son John continued the work with the original instruments that William constructed. Before the invention of the Safety Lamp, Davy discovered several elements and later contributed to avoiding corrosion in metal warships.
Many rich insights are given into the methodology of research during the period, which the author calls the Second Scientific Revolution. Rivalry and collaboration between the British and the French were widespread and exchanges continued during the Napoleonic Wars. Opinions on the existence of God affected careers for some scientists during this time but not for the principals. Poetry is a clearly a favourite theme of the author and is perhaps the rationale for the cast selection; the reader is left wondering if there is any bias in the acquaintances who get a mention in the book.
The book is enthralling and difficult to put down. As well as interesting quotes from the performers the author provides some amusing inputs of his own: "French hot air proved to have enormous lifting power". I fully recommend this book and I will likely try some of the other books of the same author.