Joanne M. Swenson, May 6, 2011 (view all comments by Joanne M. Swenson)
A great, nuanced history of science, concentrating on an era of breathtaking discovery and correlative literary genius (1769 - 1840). My criticism, not original to me, is that there is no insight into the capacity, or analysis of this wonder exhibited by scientists of this remarkable era. My shot at this: scientists of this era were still able to be generalists of inquiry, and, as members of an educated elite, found it conventional to write poetry, perform music, etc. This engagement with the Whole of experience easily gives rise to Wonder --aesthetic perception -- itself an intuition of the Whole, in the language of John Dewey.
Barbara Reisman, January 24, 2010 (view all comments by Barbara Reisman)
It is easy to feel jaded these days when such a vast wealth of knowledge about the entire universe is available with the click of a mouse under our fingertips. One way to regain a sense of awe is to read "The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science" and return to a time when individuals were making bold discoveries and observations that revealed how the universe worked. Holmes traverses the period between Captain Cook's voyage to Tahiti and Darwin's trip on the Beagle, introducing us along way to the romantic figures who struggled with almost superhuman determination to realize their visions and uncover the mysteries that life kept hidden from the average man.
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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.
"Publishers Weekly Review"
by Publishers Weekly,
"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.)
"Review A Day"
by Benjamin Moser, Harper's Magazine,
"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." (read the entire Harper's review)
by Christian Science Monitor,
"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."
by Poetry Foundation,
"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."
by The Guardian,
"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."
by Random House,
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.
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