How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
by Richard Holmes
Two things fill my mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe, the more often and persistently I reflect upon them: the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me...I see them in front of me an unite them immediately with the consciousness of my own existence. - Immanuel Kant (1788)
The cast of characters is too numerous to list, but includes geniuses of science from William Herschel to Humphrey Davy and on to Michael Faraday and other discoverers. The episodes include the discovery of the planet Uranus by Herschel and his sister, the study of Tahitian culture by Joseph Banks, the "vitalist" movement that inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, the practical development of safe lamps for coal miners by Davy, and other momentous moments of wonder that are still of importance to us today. Making his stories more interesting is the influence and intersection of science with literature as evidenced by the poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Byron, and others including Davy himself. He does not ignore the interaction with scientists from the continent like Lavoisier, Ritter, Baron Cuvier, and Goethe. Also present is the importance of the influence of philosophers, especially the Germans like Kant, both via the writings of Coleridge and through the readings of the scientists themselves.
It was an age when scientists were still considered philosophers, even masters of the humanities. This is seen in the musical creations of Herschel and the poetic charms of Davy; not to mention the writing abilities of all of them including explorers like Captain Cook with his journals of Pacific voyages, and Mungo Park whose journal of his explorations in Africa are a great read to this day. It was also an age when the foundations of some of our greatest twentieth century scientific developments were laid by men like Charles Babbage, the mathematician who invented "difference engines" (we call them computers today).
The combination of Holmes' superb writing style with fascinating stories, many unfamiliar even to a reader like myself, and with the suspense of voyages and scientific advances that seem to happen an increasing pace makes it understandable why this book was the recipient of multiple awards. I would recommend this to all readers who look at the night sky and wonder about the mysteries of nature and the universe.
View all my reviews