Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Romantic Discovery of Science

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of ScienceThe Age of Wonder: 
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)

My interest in the History of Science began with reading biographies of famous scientists like Faraday and Edison when I was not yet a teenager. This interest was intensified by college reading of Arthur Koestler, Loren Eiseley and others, and has continued to this day. Richard Holmes fine volume, The Age of Wonder, brings that interest together with my love of literature. In his prologue he describes the book as "a relay race of scientific stories". That it is and more, combining the literary milieu of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with the increasingly wonderful scientific discoveries and enterprises from the voyages of Captain James Cook through the crossing of the English Channel by balloon through excursions into the study of gases and electricity, ending with the first voyage of Charles Darwin.

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.

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Brian Joseph said...

I too share the wonder of science and the natural world. I am also interested in the history of science and scientific discoveries. I had heard that this book was good. Your commentary makes me think that it is very good.

James said...


IT is a very good book through the blending of science and the humanities. The influence of science on poets and writers is impressive.

Lory said...

I learned so much from this book and it was so well written too. I hope it will find many more readers.

James said...


Thanks for your comment. Reading Holmes' book was a learning experience for me also. Both the structure and style of his book made it even more enjoyable.