3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Fabulous series of scientific biographies of Romantic era scientists,
This review is from: The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Paperback)
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.