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."
William Hyde Wollaston was born into a large, religious, and scientifically informed family in 1766 and died sixty-two years later as one of the Western worldand#8217;s most highly regarded scientists. With encouragement from his well-connected father, he studied medicine at Cambridge, and began practicing as a physician in the provinces before moving his practice to London in 1797, arriving in the capital about the same time as his illustrious colleagues Humphry Davy and Thomas Young. After a few years in London, Wollaston abandoned the vocation he had come to dislike and bravely set out to make his living as a chemical entrepreneur, while pursuing his intellectual interests in a wide range of contemporary scientific subjects. He, Davy, and Young were to become Britainand#8217;s leading scientific practitioners in the first third of the nineteenth century, and their deaths within a six month time span were seen by many as the end of a glorious period of British supremacy in science. In contrast to his two more famous colleagues, Wollastonand#8217;s life was not recorded for posterity in a contemporary biography, and his many remarkable scientific, commercial, instrumental, and institutional achievements have fallen into obscurity as a result. This biography is the first book-length study of Wollaston, his science, and the environment in which he thrived.
William Hyde Wollaston made an astonishing number of discoveries in an astonishingly varied number of fields: platinum metallurgy, the existence of ultraviolet radiation, the chemical elements palladium and rhodium, the amino acid cystine, and the physiology of binocular vision, among others. Along with his colleagues Humphry Davy and Thomas Young, he was widely recognized during his life as one of Britainand#8217;s leading scientific practitioners in the first part of the nineteenth century, and theand#160; deaths of all three within a six-month span, between 1828 and 1829, were seen by many as the end of a glorious period of British scientific supremacy. Unlike Davy and Young, however, Wollaston was not the subject of a contemporary biography, and his many impressive achievements have fallen into obscurity as a result.
Pure Intelligence is the first book-length study of Wollaston, his science, and the environment in which he thrived. Drawing on previously-unstudied laboratory records as well as historical reconstructions of chemical experiments and discoveries, and written in a highly accessible style, Pure Intelligence will help to reinstate Wollaston in the history of science, and the pantheon of its great innovators.
The first half of the nineteenth century witnessed an extraordinary transformation in British political, literary, and intellectual life. There was widespread social unrest, and debates raged regarding education, the lives of the working class, and the new industrial, machine-governed world. At the same time, modern science emerged in Europe in more or less its current form, as new disciplines and revolutionary concepts, including evolution and the vastness of geologic time, began to take shape.and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;
In Visions of Science, James A. Secord offers a new way to capture this unique moment of change. He explores seven key booksand#151;among them Charles Babbageand#8217;s Reflections on the Decline of Science, Charles Lyelland#8217;s Principles ofGeology, Mary Somervilleand#8217;s Connexion of the Physical Sciences, and Thomas Carlyleand#8217;s Sartor Resartusand#151;and shows how literature that reflects on the wider meaning of science can be revelatory when granted the kind of close reading usually reserved for fiction and poetry. These books considered the meanings of science and its place in modern life, looking to the future, coordinating and connecting the sciences, and forging knowledge that would be appropriate for the new age. Their aim was often philosophical, but Secord shows it was just as often imaginative, projective, and practical: to suggest not only how to think about the natural world but also to indicate modes of action and potential consequences in an era of unparalleled change. and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;
Visions of Science opens our eyes to how genteel ladies, working men, and the literary elite responded to these remarkable works. It reveals the importance of understanding the physical qualities of books and the key role of printers and publishers, from factories pouring out cheap compendia to fashionable publishing houses in Londonand#8217;s West End. Secordand#8217;s vivid account takes us to the heart of an information revolution that was to have profound consequences for the making of the modern world.
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