on 17 December 2008
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.
on 10 March 2013
I had high hopes for this book and the first 6 of the 10 chapters were fascinating. I learnt all about people whose names we've all heard of but perhaps know very little about - Joseph Banks, William Herschel, Mungo Park and Humphrey Davy - in an entertaining, narrative way full of anecdotes and interesting facts. When you see how their lives begin to overlap and connect it adds another fascinating dimension. By chapter 7, however, the book has begun to lose its way and almost reads like another book. It becomes weighed down with poetic references, literary history and the vitalism debate that neither engage nor entertain. It picks up again towards the end with the likes of Farraday and Babbage so I ended it on a positive note. It's worth reading definitely, but be prepared for a bit of page-flicking in the middle.
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!
on 29 March 2009
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.
on 17 November 2010
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.
on 15 November 2015
The late 18th and early 19th Centuries saw science change our understanding of the world - the universe - we inhabit at a fundamental level. The Herschells mapped the stars, discovered new plaets and comets, and proved that our galaxy is just one of millions. Humphrey Davy discovered new elements and introduced us to the beginnings of electricity. Anatomists studied circulation, and wondered what particular form of electricity animated the human body - and the human soul. Balloonists conquered the skies thanks to science, and science influenced the Romantic poets too - Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and Southey. Above it all sat the hugely influential Royal Society and the polymath Joseph Banks. And as a subtext underneath it all lay the studiously avoided question of God's role in all this, which came to the fore in the next generation of scientists.
Richard Holmes's book shows us this world, where science and the arts were not yet distinct but complementary. A world where people were both fascinated, repelled and terrified of these discoveries. A world which he portrays brilliantly. I'm not a scientist, but I understood all the science, and I found myself wanting to know more. The stars of this book, the men and women making all these discoveries, are drawn with affection that is not blinded by admiration, and in every case, the narrative ensures that the reader is aware of the wider context, the wider implications. It's a very close world in many ways, a world where it sometimes seems as if everyone corresponds with everyone else, or is a member of the same club, or is best friends with, or married to, another star.
This is a book that anyone interested in the age where the Englightenment gave way to the Romantics. It is a book whose successor I would love to read, though it seems it's not yet written. But hopefully soon. It's a book I'd highly recommend.
on 13 September 2010
This is a magnificent book, this man could literally - and I use the word carefully - write about how paint dries and make the physics of the process and the historical context of paint formulae interesting. I could not put this book down, and it is not even my first choice of subject matter - the science of the Romantic Age and its relationship to the arts was just something I thought I ought to know more about, and I selected the book expecting it to be moderately hard going. Instead of that, it was pure pleasure from beginning to end.
For benefit of other readers and at risk of being picky, on p.156 he confuses the battle of Aboukir, 1799, with the battle of Aboukir Bay (better known as the battle of the Nile), 01 August 1798.
Although C18 Romanticism grew as a reaction to the cold rationality of the Enlightenment, which reached the depths of brutality in the excesses of the French Revolution, Richard Holmes challenges the view that the subjectivity of Romanticism was consistently opposed to the objectivity of scientific advances. He explores what he defines as the “Age of Wonder”, the fertile and inspiring period involving discovery of the natural world through exploration, overseas and vertically into the heavens, and inventions in the use of energy, such as gas or electricity. This period is bounded by two famous voyages: Captain Cook’s expedition to Tahiti aboard the Endeavour starting in 1768, and Charles Darwin’s to the Galapagos Islands on the Beagle in 1831.
This fascinating and very readable book, which sets science in an intriguing social context and makes it accessible to a reader with little prior knowledge, is like a series of mini-biographies. It begins with Joseph Banks, who as an energetic and charismatic young self-taught botanist not only collected an impressive range of plants, but demonstrated broad-minded skill in living with the native Tahitians on equal terms, negotiating the crew’s way out of awkward situations with his flexibility – the lack of this no doubt led to Cook’s brutal murder on a subsequent voyage without Banks.
The next subject is William Herschel, again self-taught, who developed astronomy with his mapping of the heavens, and discoveries of the planet Uranus and numerous nebulae, assisted by his long-suffering and underestimated sister Caroline, “the tough little German” who painstakingly recorded his observations as he “kept his eye clear” by gazing without interruption into the telescopes he had constructed himself. Holmes shows us how Herschel’s work inspired Romantic poets like Shelley, Byron and Coleridge to include references to the moon and boundless universe in their work.
The development of balloons, starting with the Montgolfier, improbably made from paper and named after the wealthy manufacturer of that product, led to a mania for this type of transport which often ended in tragedy, and justified Joseph Banks’ reservations about its usefulness, in his important role in as President of the Royal Society, a talent-spotter and promoter of worthwhile scientific projects.
Humphrey Davy is also a major player, risking his life experimenting with nitrous oxide, the laughing gas which, seeming like the C18 equivalent of smoking pot, made Davy for a while the butt of mockery in the scurrilous press, although his discovery of the miner’s safety lamp was much admired.
Holmes ranges widely: the frequent rivalry between what were at first vaguely called “natural philosophers”, only recognised after heated debate as “scientists” from 1833; the attempts to interpret and popularise science for the public by writers including the mathematician Mary Somerville, at a time when women were only allowed to selected meetings of the “Literary and Philosophical” societies springing up round the country; the tendency to skirt round the issue that ongoing discoveries of astronomical “deep space” and geological “deep time” tended to threaten “safe religious belief” with “dangerous secular materialism” – for the “Age of Wonder” preceded the bombshell of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”, not published until 1859.
Reading this book reminded me of Cyril Connolly's adage that inside every fat man is a thin one wildly signalling to be let out. There is much good writing here, about an exciting period for the emergence of modern science, populated by many fascinating characters. And it appears to be based on a lot of original research. But what a pity that one of the first requirements of modern popular histories is that they should extend to 500 pages. Poetry by Sir Humphrey Davy? For the most part we could do without it. Similarly, in this context, that of Byron and Shelley; some dreary speculation on the lines of "as he did such and such a thing, he must have been thinking...."; the author's evangelistic promotion of atheism; and the inclusion, especially in the early chapters, of any available sexual titillation, much of which is in any case based only on speculation.
But the book is worth reading. The Age of Wonder, well named, opens with Joseph Banks' stay on Tahiti in 1769. He was a member of an expedition sponsored by the Royal Society and led by Captain James Cook, the primary objective of which was to observe the transit of Venus across the sun. Banks returned to England with a huge number of botanical and other specimens, and much carefully recorded anthropological and other information, founding his reputation as a popular, if essentially untrained and amateur scientist (throughout his lifetime scientists were known as philosophers). He was in due course rewarded with the Presidency of the Royal Society and it is through his Presidency that the link is made with much of the other material in this book. He and the Society did much to encourage and facilitate the work of the young Humphrey Davy, who eventually succeeded Banks to the Presidency. Davy died in 1829 and it is with his death that The Age of Wonder as a book essentially ends. Many related developments were still to come - in particular, Michael Faraday had yet to produce the work on electricity and electromagnetism for which he is best known - and Holmes rightly anticipates much that at the time lay in the future.
Besides Banks, Davy, his famous miner's lamp and other discoveries, the book majors on William Hershel, his development of telescopes and discovery of Uranus; also sister Caroline and her independent discovery of eight comets; Central African explorer Mungo Park; and the early development of hot air and hydrogen ballooning. Many other late eighteenth and early nineteenth century players also feature. For some it might be possible to discover as much, if not more, from other sources, but this book - which is exceptionally well indexed and has a useful Cast List as an Appendix - would still be worth checking as a route to discovering how individuals interrelated - Sir Humphrey Davy to Sir Walter Scott, for example, or Joseph Banks to King George III, who in turn was not averse to popping round to a garden party at the home of William and Caroline Herschel. It was indeed an Age of Wonder.
on 2 August 2010
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!
Whether you are interested in science, Georgian history or the poets, buy this book - there is something in here for all tastes. You won't regret your purchase and you will no doubt find something new and interesting in there.