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on 16 February 2010
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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on 28 December 2009
"The Age of Wonder" is a continuous collection of mini-biographies of men such as Joseph Banks, Humphrey Davy, Herschel, Faraday ... scientists all - though they would be called that for many years - and yet also part of the literary fabric of the time, which the author, Richard Holmes, does not neglect. Not surprising since his previous books were about people like Coleridge and Shelly.

Dangerous experiments, long voyages, unrealised glimpses of great scientific truths, social triumph, literary celebration .... For example, we all know that Herschel discovered Uranus, but to be told that he also constructed his own reflector telescopes, painstakingly (and painfully) grinding his own mirrors adds a much needed human dimension to the history of scientific discovery.

At 500-odd pages including indexes etc it is a book to read in shortish bursts, and is organised to allow this. Thoroughly recommended, and on my shelves joins "The Fellowship" by John Gribbin (about the early history of the Royal Society), "The Map that Changed the World" by Simon Winchester (on William Smith and the first geological map of the country) and "Scurvy, by Stephen R Brown, about "the greatest medical mystery of the age of sail".
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on 14 August 2011
This book explains the major scientific discoveries of the romantic period ,the formation of the 'Royal Society' and the realisation that science was useful to mankind. The books follows the lives of important pioneers and their dedication to their subject. Good to read before R.Dawkins 
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on 27 January 2011
I was delighted to receive this book as a Christmas present. I put it on my wish list after hearing about it on Radio 4 Start The Week. I have not had a chance to read it as yet but I know it contains info. on this really interesting period of history. Although the site sid it would not arrive before Christmas, IT DID!!! Good on you Amazon
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VINE VOICEon 1 February 2010
Richard Holmes' magisterial Age of Wonder has worked its magic on me. Having read it over several weeks before Christmas, many of its scenes and images have jostled unforgettably in my mind. This is not simply the account of a great period in the Royal Society's history (although it is that); nor is it a cultural history of the Georgian era in Britain (although that would have been fine be me, since that's easily one of my favourite periods).

It is instead a wonderful window into the relationship between science, the arts and the popular imagination and culture at a very important moment for the modern world. This makes it constantly compelling, regularly provocative and always insightful. I simply couldn't put it down and eagerly anticipated the next 'aha' moment! One myth that Holmes seeks to dispel (and does so expertly) is the common notion that the Romantic era was anti-science. Of course it was more complex than that. Holmes is a renowned biographer of the Romantic poets and so clearly qualified constantly to weave his tale of scientific endeavour with their's.

The book opens in 1769 with a very young Joseph Banks intrepidly setting sights on Tahiti, and ends in the 1840s with the next generation of scientists like Faraday and Babbage. Various names from the British scientific pantheon take turns in Holmes' spotlight (like the William Herschel and his equally gifted sister Caroline, Mungo Park, Sir Humphry Davy), and we see what drove them and inspired their science, as well as the impact on the likes of Coleridge, Percy & Mary Shelley (there's a brilliant chapter on her pioneering novel Frankenstein), Keats and Byron. But a constant thread is the guidance and patronage of Banks, in his capacity as President of the Royal Society.

There are so many things one could say about the book as it is so densely wide-ranging. But while I learned a lot about so many things of which I was previously woefully ignorant, I was especially keen to understand more of the worldview questions, and especially the theological debates which anticipated those of the Darwinian era only a few years later. (In fact, the narrative closes around the time Darwin was setting off on his fateful voyage to the Galapagos). And therefore this story is of huge importance. As Holmes says on the very penultimate page:

It seems to me impossible to understand fully the contemporary debates about the environment, or climate change, or genetic engineering, or alternative medicine, or extraterrestrial life, or the nature of consciousness, or even the existence of God, without knowing how these arose from the opes and anxieties of the Romantic generation. (p468)

Astronomy, more than those later protagonists of botany and biology, was producing the biggest challenge - especially after the discoveries and thoughts of the extraoridnary William Herschel with his revolutionary 40ft telescope at Slough. This was profoundly affecting people's sense of place in the universe - the cosmos was a place of awe and wonder. But notice the shift from Coleridge's more neutral description of star-gazing with his father to that of Shelley's polemical take:

"At all events, Coleridge treasured the memory of (The Reverend John Coleridge) his father's eager demonstration of the stars and planets overhead, and the possibility of other worlds: `I remember that at eight years old I walked with him one evening from a farmer's house, a mile from Ottery - & he told me the names of the stars - and how Jupiter was a thousand times larger than our world - and that the other twinkling stars were Suns that had worlds rolling round them - & when I came home, he showed me how they rolled round. I heard him with profound delight and admiration; but without the least mixture of Wonder or incredulity. For from my early reading of Faery Tales, & Genii etc etc - my mind had been habituated to the Vast.' (pp111-2)"
"Shelley used Herschel's vision of an open-ended solar system, and an unimaginably expanded universe, to attack religious belief. His arguments went as follows. The cosmos as revealed by science must contain many thousands of different nebular systems, and therefore millions of habitable planets, so it was impossible to sustain a narrow, religious concept of one Almighty Christian Redeemer. Since there would be so many other `fallen' worlds to redeem, the idea of God being born and crucified on each planet became absurd. As Shelley put it provokingly, `His Works have borne witness against Him.' He wrote a particularly fierce note `On the Plurality of Worlds' in Queen Mab:
The indefinite immensity of the universe, is the most aweful subject of contemplation... It is impossible to believe that the Spirit that pervades this infinite machine begat a son upon the body of a Jewish woman... The works of His fingers have borne witness against him... Sirius is supposed to be 54 trillion miles from the Earth... Millions and millions of suns are ranged around us, all attended by innumerable worlds, yet calm, regular, and harmonious, all keeping the paths of immutable Necessity. (p391)"

But not everyone shared that view - or saw the direct threats that science would pose to religious belief in the years to come:
"For many Romantic scientists, with a robust intellectual belief in the `argument by Design,' there was no immediate contradiction between religion and science: rather the opposite. Science was a gift of God or Providence to mankind, and its purpose was to reveal the wonders of His design. This indeed was the essence of `natural' religion, as promoted for example by William Paley in his Natural Theology (1802), with its famous analogy with the divine watchmaker. It was the faith that brought Mungo Park back alive from his first Niger expedition. It was the faith that inspired Michael Faraday to become a Deacon in the Sandemanian Church in July 1832. (p450)"

Which is much more nuanced than the vitriol of the anti-religion brigade, let alone the anti-science religious types, would have us believe. They simply ARE compatible - which his why so many cosmologists and 'hard' scientists are perfectly comfortable with their theism.

But in many ways, the background to the apologetic debates that we get ourselves tied up is was not the book's most valuable contribution (helpful thought it undoubtedly is). What most gripped me was the fact that I found myself again and again swept up in the sheer romance of science - the sense of awe at both the cosmic and microscopic, the desire to know, to understand God's thoughts after him, if you like. I was frequently transported to Royal Society lectures, or to the audience of Faraday's Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution, designed specifically to draw in non-scientists.

My appreciation was only deepened, not diminished, when the romantic myths of the noble scientist get dispelled. I was very struck by this point, sadly tucked away in a footnote:
"Michael Hoskin has suggested in his essay `On Writing the History of Modern Astronomy' (1980) that most histories of science continue to be `uninterrupted chronicles', which run along `handing out medals to those who "got it right"'. They ignore the history of error, so central to the scientific process, and fail to illuminate science as a `creative human activity' which involves the whole personality and has a broad social context - Journal for the History of Astronomy 11 (1980). To this one might add that Romanticism introduced three important themes into science biography.
First the `Newton syndrome', the notion of `scientific genius', in which science is largely advanced by a small number of preternaturally gifted (and usually isolated) individuals.
Second, the existence of the `Eureka moment', in which great discoveries are made without warning (or much preparation) in a sudden, blazing instant of revelation and synthesis.
Third, the `Frankenstein nightmare', in which all scientific progress is really a disguised form of destruction. (p94)"

Now, there were one or two moments where I did feel that Holmes' objectivity temporarily deserted him, mainly in his depictions of theistic or Christian worldviews. Too often, Christian morality or theology was implicitly charged as unhelpful or even destructive (e.g. in the interactions between later Christian visitors to Tahiti), or individuals would be described as `fundamentalist', as the painter Benjamin Haydon is on p319 (which was both jarring and anachronistic). But on the whole, I can forgive these as lapses because the narrative is so sweeping in scope and brilliantly told, and they are few and far between.

There is SO much treasure in this book. But I end where Holmes does. I couldn't have agreed more with these, the very last words of the book - inarticulately before reading The Age of Wonder, and passionately since:
"The old, rigid debates and boundaries - science versus religion, science versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics - are no longer enough. We should be impatient with them. We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective. Above all, perhaps we need the three things that a scientific culture can sustain: the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe. And that is how this book might possibly end. (p469)"
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on 2 March 2010
I have got to 200 pages - fascinating, detailed reading so far of the lives and science of Banks and Hershel etc. And I am soon going to Slough - been through it, past it, many times and never thought would bother to visit Slough - but the work and lives in Slough of William and Caroline Hershel, the sites, the telescopes, their discoveries, their connections and relations, their houses, and marriage, etc., places Slough into new status I had not realised - even though one knew of the names and their scientific work. The book is very enticing to read - never yawn, facts are sticking for a change and one does not need to re read sections as one progresses through its fascination. Great book - wish I had had that at school in the 50s - how well literature of science has developed. Must now get back to the book .- which is far more interesting than the computer.
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on 30 May 2014
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! He has managed to put a human face to scientists, wannabe scientists, and would-be scientists of the 18th century and filled in the human blanks on names that many would recognise, but just barely , like Herschel who, a musician by occupation, turned the world of astronomy on its head! Additionally, the wonderment of flight, albeit ballooning, by Mongolfier, Lusardi, and more, that was witnessed by thousands (who PAID to see balloons in flight!) This list goes on, but if you'd find satisfaction knowing the life-facts and feats of early scientists, you must read this--you'll not regret it, I promise! This author is the best!
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on 22 May 2011
I am writing this review not because I have something original to add compared to the other reviews, but mainly to increase the number of people who appreciate this book for its content and style. It is a beautiful, interesting and refreshing read, especially if you want to learn more about the lives of the great men who used courage, imagination, curiosity and perseverance to make essential discoveries that brought us all into this age of comfort. A fantastic read, highly recommended!
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on 15 February 2010
Very occasionally in my life, I read a book, and have a strong impulse afterwards to seek out the author and shake him vigorously by the hand, or buy him a large pint in thanks for the heavy debt of pleasure I need to repay. This is such a book, and one where in hindsight I believe the publishers missed a trick - I would have happily paid 50 pounds, rather than 10, for the privilege of reading it.

The Age of Wonder recounts in a connected series of scientific biographies the period between around 1770 and 1830 where the fledgling sciences were intimately connected with the arts. Chemists such as Humphrey Davy were also poets, while poets such as Coleridge were also serious students of science. Culture viewed the scientist as a Byronic figure, a lone genius bravely revealing the beauty of divine nature. The idea of a professional scientist was slowly being formed in this time, and so too, perhaps, was the schism between science and art that now seems so wide.

Through a highly accomplished, direct style, Holmes argues his points carefully and convincingly. Moreover, his biographical powers are stupendous. Every main character, so honestly described, comes alive on the page. For such a long and potentially dry book, I found myself hooked from the start. I was moved, utterly fascinated, and at times in awe of the herculean effort that must have been involved in producing such an authoritative, yet readable tomb.

Although The Age of Wonder is a book about science and scientists, this is not a book to learn about science itself, though, and I'm rather surprised that it won the 2009 Royal Society Prize (it should surely have won Samuel Johnson Prize, if it wasn't such a strong year). It's clear that Holmes is no scientist, and if there is any weakness at all to the book, it is Holmes' description of some of the scientific principles at work, and his lack of knowledge on the relative import of each discovery. Instead, he centres on the characters, and the scientific atmosphere of the time, and to anyone remotely interested in science or the romantic period, this is a huge achievement and a fabulous book.
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on 16 December 2008
Given this book as a birthday present I started to read it as I had half an hour to kill and was immediately gripped. This is a wonderfully written and thoroughly interesting collection of stories, anecdotes and brief biographies woven together with skill and care. I have learned a lot whilst reading this book and enjoyed myself in the process, I heartily recommend it.
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