The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
by Richard Holmes
Reviewed by Benjamin Moser
Richard Holmes's monumental The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Pantheon, $40) opens in 1769, when the dashing young millionaire Joseph Banks alighted on Tahiti, a paradisiacal isle that was to host Captain James Cook's observations of the transit of Venus -- though, as the crewmen discovered, the island's other charms lent the name of their temporary establishment, Fort Venus, more suggestive shades.
Banks is the figure that unites a whole panorama of Romantic heroes: as president of the Royal Society, he went on to sponsor all sorts of remarkable -- today largely forgotten -- -scientists, explorers, and writers. Rather than dwell on the overly familiar Victorians -- Stanley and Livingstone, Dickens and Darwin -- Holmes brings to life no less notable scientific and artistic geniuses. Whether he is describing Caroline and William Herschel, a brother-and-sister team of astronomers who discovered Uranus and who revolutionized our understanding of the universe as an expanding cosmos of unimaginable age and size; or Mungo Park, whom Banks dispatched to Africa on an ill-fated journey to track down the sources of the River Niger; or Humphry Davy, the self-taught Cornish chemist who described the carbon cycle and was among the first to understand the properties of gases, Holmes, distinguished biographer of Coleridge and Shelley, intertwines the new age of science with larger currents in exploration and poetry. 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 is a contributing editor of Harper's magazine and the author of Why This World.