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The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Scienceby Richard Holmes
Richard Holmes's The Age of Wonder is at once a history of Regency-era scientific discovery and a meditation on what the pursuit of science says about us as individuals and as a culture. Scrupulously researched and deftly told, this book is an epic journey of the mind.
"As a good cookbook sends us straight to the kitchen, or a vivid travel book inspires us to get on a plane, The Age of Wonder, by portraying so many people whose eyes were open to the horror and excitement of the world, urges us to appreciate more keenly the mysteries that surround us." Benjamin Moser, Harper's Magazine (read the entire Harper's review)
Synopses & Reviews
A riveting history of the men and women whose discoveries and inventions at the end of the eighteenth century gave birth to the Romantic Age of Science. Brilliantly conceived as a relay of scientific stories, The Age of Wonder explores the earliest ideas and explorers of dynamic science: an infinite, mysterious Nature waiting to be discovered.
Three lives dominate the book: William Herschel and his sister Caroline, whose dedication to the study of the stars forever changed the public conception of the solar system, the Milky Way, and the meaning of the universe itself. And Humphry Davy, who, with only a grammar school education, stunned the scientific community with his near-suicidal gas experiments, which led to the invention of the miners' lamp and established British chemistry as the leading professional science in Europe. Richard Holmes's extraordinary evocation of this age of wonder shows how great ideas and experiments — both successes and failures — were born of singular (and often lonely) dedication, and how science began to be viewed as one with the imagination. It is breathtaking in its originality, its storytelling energy, and its intellectual significance.
"The Romantic imagination was inspired, not alienated, by scientific advances, argues this captivating history. Holmes, author of a much-admired biography of Coleridge, focuses on prominent British scientists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including the astronomer William Herschel and his accomplished assistant and sister, Caroline; Humphrey Davy, a leading chemist and amateur poet; and Joseph Banks, whose journal of a youthful voyage to Tahiti was a study in sexual libertinism. Holmes's biographical approach makes his obsessive protagonists (Davy's self-experimenting with laughing gas is an epic in itself) the prototypes of the Romantic genius absorbed in a Promethean quest for knowledge. Their discoveries, he argues, helped establish a new paradigm of 'Romantic science' that saw the universe as vast, dynamic and full of marvels and celebrated mankind's power to not just describe but transform Nature. Holmes's treatment is sketchy on the actual science and heavy on the cultural impact, with wide-ranging discussions of the 1780s ballooning craze, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and scientific metaphors in Romantic poetry. It's an engrossing portrait of scientists as passionate adventurers, boldly laying claim to the intellectual leadership of society. Illus. (July 14)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Holmes pursues his many-chambered nautilus of a tale with energy and great rigor, unearthing many lives and assembling remnant shards of biography, history, science, and literary criticism." Christian Science Monitor
"What Holmes has given us with this account of the Romantic scientists is, curiously enough, a thrilling new way to interpret the poets of the era. To bring new light to such a widely read group — and from the angle least expected, that of rigorous scientific study — is Holmes's considerable gift." Poetry Foundation
"Gives us...a new model for scientific exploration and poetic expression in the Romantic period. Informative and invigoration, generous and beguiling, it is, indeed, wonderful." The Guardian
Book News Annotation:
The author of a number of biographies, British author Holmes presents a series of stories which collectively provide an account of the second scientific revolution, which produced a new vision--Romantic science--in 18th-century Britain. Included are chapters on botanist Joseph Banks (1743-1820), astronomers William Hershel (1738-1822) and his sister Caroline (1750-1848), 18th-century balloonists, chemist Humphry Davy (1778-1829), and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) and the soul. The text also contains an alphabetically-organized list of key individuals in 18th-century science, a thematically grouped bibliography, and some 70 b&w and color reproductions. The book is academic but accessible to the general reader. Annotation ©2009 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
A riveting history of the men and women whose discoveries and inventions at the end of the eighteenth century gave birth to the Romantic Age of Science.
When young Joseph Banks stepped onto a Tahitian beach in 1769, he hoped to discover Paradise. Inspired by the scientific ferment sweeping through Britain, the botanist had sailed with Captain Cook on his first Endeavour voyage in search of new worlds. Other voyages of discoveryastronomical, chemical, poetical, philosophicalswiftly follow in Richard Holmess original evocation of what truly emerges as an Age of Wonder.
Brilliantly conceived as a relay of scientific stories, The Age of Wonder investigates the earliest ideas of deep time and space, and the explorers of “dynamic science,” of an infinite, mysterious Nature waiting to be discovered. Three lives dominate the book: William Herschel and his sister Caroline, whose dedication to the study of the stars forever changed the public conception of the solar system, the Milky Way, and the meaning of the universe; and Humphry Davy, who, with only a grammar school education stunned the scientific community with his near-suicidal gas experiments that led to the invention of the miners lamp and established British chemistry as the leading professional science in Europe. This age of exploration extended to great writers and poets as well as scientists, all creators relishing in moments of high exhilaration, boundary-pushing and discovery.
Holmess extraordinary evocation of this age of wonder shows how great ideas and experimentsboth successes and failureswere born of singular and often lonely dedication, and how religious faith and scientific truth collide. He has written a book breathtaking in its originality, its storytelling energy, and its intellectual significance.
About the Author
Richard Holmes is the author of Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer; Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer; Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage; Shelley: The Pursuit (for which he received the Somerset Maugham Award); Coleridge: Early Visions; and Coleridge: Darker Reflections (a New York Times Book Review Editors Choice and a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist). He lives in England.
Table of Contents
List of illustrations
1 Joseph Banks in Paradise
2 Herschel on the Moon
3 Balloonists in Heaven
4 Herschel Among the Stars
5 Mungo Park in Africa
6 Davy on the Gas
7 Dr Frankenstein and the Soul
8 Davy and the Lamp
9 Sorcerer and Apprentice
10 Young Scientists
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