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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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From the Author
AIMS AND MOTIVATIONS
1. "My books on Shelley and Coleridge are all about people who had hope in the world. Now come [in Age of Wonder] the scientists and the discovery of a new kind of hope." [Guardian interview] Is this – the sense of hope shared by Romantic scientists and artists – what prompted you to shift from literary biography to history of science?
Yes. One of the glories of the Romantic period for me is its sense of hope and energy, of wider possibilities, of a better world. I also hate the stultifying idea of the Two Cultures – arts and sciences – supposedly dividing us. The Romantics didn’t believe in such a division. In fact the specific thing that set me off was the friendship between the poet Coleridge (whose biography I had written) and the chemist Humphry Davy. It is a fascinating story, ranging from their inhaling of nitrous oxide gas together, to discussing the hardest metaphysical questions about the nature of scientific knowledge and its role in society .
2. You write in Age of Wonder that you aim to "present scientific passion, so much of which is summed up in that child-like, but infinitely complex word, wonder" [xx]. Did you aim to present the methods of scientists as well as "passion" behind their work?
Yes, and these methods are not at all child-like. They were original, daring and often highly dangerous. To start with, the principles of close observation, accurate measurement, and precise experiment pioneered by the scientists – incidentally not defined as “scientists” until 1833 – are intellectually gripping in themselves. But there’s the physical equipment they used, and often invented – like Herschel’s homemade reflectors, or Davy’s voltaic batteries, or Banks’s exquisite anthropological (as well as botanical) drawings, or Blanchard’s balloon canopies and barometers. Then there’s the story of their actual experiments, explorations and discoveries, which make thrilling narratives in themselves…
3. Did you use any other writers on the history of science, or works in the field, as models for this book? Is so, what/who were they?
Not really, I felt I was trying to do something quite new in this form of group biography. Indeed it was a long and lonely business. Nonetheless there were books which deeply encouraged me, and which I admire greatly: James Gleick on Newton, Lisa Jardine on 17th century science in Ingenious Pursuits, and Jenny Uglow on the 18th century Lunar Men. There were also certain radio and television programmes which inspired me by the way complex ideas could be discussed and clarified: Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time for instance, and Sir David Attenborough’s brilliant nature programmes.
4. "We need not only a new history of science, but a more enlarged and imaginative biographical writing about individual scientists" [Age of Wonder, 468]. Do you have some individual scientists in mind who deserve more biographical attention?
I think the biography of scientists is only just starting. For example, Mike Jay’s biography of the 18th century doctor Thomas Beddoes, or Graham Farmelo’s of the 20th century physicist Paul Dirac, or Georgina Ferry’s of the molecular biologist Max Perutz. Most of all there is the need for fuller biographies of women in science, especially during the early modern period: the Duchess of Newcastle, Emilie du Chatelet, Mary Anning, Mary Somerville, Caroline Herschel, Jane Marcet, or Margaret Huggins for example.
1.You have described biography as a union of fiction and fact, "without benefit of clergy" [Inventing the Truth, 15]. Did your previous experience of marrying fact and fiction (in your works of literary biography) make it easier for you to marry Romantic science with Romantic art (in this book)?
No, I felt I was starting from scratch. It’s not so much “marrying” fact and fiction, as using fictional techniques to get across facts and present them in a revealing way. I’ll give you two examples of this. One is the use of Joseph Banks as a kind of Greek chorus throughout the book. The second is the method of starting each scientific life in the middle, when something significant has already happened, and only going back to the childhood later – to see how he or she got to that significant place. If you look in the book, you will see how these work.
2. "Empathy is the most powerful, the most necessary, and the most deceptive, of all biographical emotions" [Sidetracks]. As a writer, did you find it harder to empathise with the scientists in this history than with the writers? If this was a problem for you, how did you overcome it?
I’m not sure about this. The question of “empathy” – and in what sense it really exists, as opposed to “sympathy” – is a difficult one for all biographers. I suppose there can be a problem about understanding the inner life of scientists, who may not be so naturally inclined to confide their thoughts to letters, journals or diaries as professional writers. Biographers might call this “a lack of interiority”. On the other hand, scientists tend to have a natural gift for explaining things, including the way they have approached and solved (or failed to solve, potentially just as interesting) particular scientific problems. There is a great and growing interest in the informal Notebooks of scientists – for example the Notebooks of Leonardo, Newton and Charles Darwin have all been published and are classics – just like the Notebooks of Coleridge.
3. There is a fashion, in history of science writing, for biographies about non-human subjects, whether equations (E = mc2) or entities (quarks, flies, electrons). Can you imagine writing this kind of biography, or is the human element indispensable for you? No, the human heart is indispensable. Samuel Johnson said he could “write the life of a broomstick”, but I couldn’t. Mind you Shelley wrote the life of a single cloud in a long poem of that name, and it is scientifically impressive on the convection cycle as well as biographically beautiful.
4. The Age of Wonder has reached a much larger readership than typical histories of science. Why do you think this is?
I think it’s because we are probably entering a golden age of popular science writing, for quite complex reasons… But it has struck me that in lectures, and in the signing queue afterwards, my readers seem more evenly balanced between men and women, and definitely younger than before. But then that’s probably because I’m definitely older than before.
5. Do you have plans for another book? If so, do you plan to write again on the Romantic period? On science?
No time to lose! Already hard at work!
About the Author
Richard Holmes is a Fellow of the British Academy, and was Professor of Biographical Studies at the University of East Anglia (2001–2007). He was awarded the 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 Award, and ‘Dr Johnson and Mr Savage’ won the James Tait Black Prize. ‘Coleridge: Darker Reflections’ won the Duff Cooper Prize and the Heinemann Award. He lives in London and Norfolk with the novelist Rose Tremain.
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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.
Overall pretty interesting and readable, combining loads of different styles of discovery including
- always fatal African explorations
- the hot air ballooning crazes
- astronomy and evolving ideas about the universe
- chemistry, electricity and addictions to nitrous oxide
In summary it's very readable if not spell binding and you'll learn something new about the period when we changed our ideas about everything.
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