Source of book: Borrowed from the Library
Date originally posted on Facebook: January 6, 2011
This is, without doubt, one of the best non-fiction books I read in the last five years. Highly recommended.
The Age of Wonder, as defined by the author, ran from 1769 to 1830. During this time, great strides were made in the sciences of astronomy, chemistry, and many others. This era is brought to life in an enthralling manner in this book.
This book could easily have been academic, dry, or pedantic. Fortunately, it is none of the above. Holmes has written extensively about the Romantic era, in particular about its poets: Coleridge, Shelley, Wordsworth, Southey. This book seeks to take the spirit of the era and show how it pervaded its science as well as its literature.
In essence, this was a time when nature still held wonder and magic. All too often thereafter, science has tended to be viewed as clinical, nerdy, divorced from feeling. In contrast, the thrill of discovery, the danger of experimentation, and the poetry of creation were and sometimes still are bound up in the exploration of the natural world.
The decision to correlate the poetry and the science of the era was hardly accidental or a mere device. Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles, and a significant intellectual in his time), straddled the line by writing with knowledge and verve on science as well as other topics. Coleridge was a close friend of Humphrey Davy, as were a number of other poets. These were people that knew each other closely, and conversed and discussed all of the intellectual pursuits.
The book closely follows the careers of three particular men and one woman. The first is Sir Joseph Banks. The longstanding leader of the Royal Society, Banks first came on the scene as a result of his voyage with Captain Cook to Tahiti in 1769. His influence dominated British science from then on, although he is unjustly forgotten by many in our day.
Sir Joseph Banks, as painted in 1773 by Joshua Reynolds
The second is William Herschel, probably the greatest astronomer to follow Sir Isaac Newton. Best remembered as the discoverer of the planet Uranus, he was also a skilled manufacturer of telescopes, and probably did more to map the stars than any one person before or since. However, he did not work alone. His sister Caroline, the third figure to receive special attention in this book, was nominally his assistant, but she should be considered an eminent scientist in her own right. Caroline discovered numerous comets on her own, and was equally responsible for much of her brother’s work. The two of them were a team that could be the substance of legend.
Caroline Herschel at age 92. Lithograph by George Muller. If being one of the most legendary astronomers of all time wasn't enough, she also belongs in the "short person hall of fame." Deformed by typhus at a young age, she stood 4' 3".
William Herschel. Portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott. William was also a skilled musician, playing oboe, violin, harpsichord, and organ. His violin skills were enough to give him a side career as a soloist. In his "spare" time, when he wasn't discovering planets and mapping the sky, he also composed 24 symphonies (see below) and numerous other works.
The fourth figure is Sir Humphrey Davy. A complex character, Davy could likely have become a renowned poet, had he not decided to follow science instead. Davy experimented with gasses early in his career, coming close to the invention of anesthesia. Later, he invented the miner’s safety lamp that bears his name. He too was a great influence on those to follow, taking the reins of the Royal Society after Banks’ death.
Sir Humphrey Davy. Portrait by Thomas Phillips.
In addition to these figures, the book includes chapters on early balloon flights, Mungo Park’s expeditions to Africa, and the dark side of science as envisioned by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Throughout the book are quotations from the poems of the era on the subject matter, including several from Davy himself.
Perhaps Mary Shelley deserves an additional mention as having written what is believed to be the first science fiction story. The book grew out of a discussion on science between a group of poets and intellectuals including her husband Percy, Byron, and others. It was agreed that each (of the men at least) would write something on the subject. While Percy Shelley and Byron’s poems were memorable in their own ways, it was Mary’s novel that has become the icon familiar to all.
This book is an excellent read, bringing the era to life without resorting to sensationalism or dumbing the topic down. Holmes clearly loves his topic and its characters. I thoroughly recommend this book, particularly to those who do not see science and poetry as mutually exclusive.
A final note: Concurrently with this book, I have been reading Jules Verne’s book, The Mysterious Island. Although Verne wrote after the Age of Wonder, his writing carries the same spirit. Perhaps after that, I will need to read Frankenstein. (See my review here.)
Just for fun, here is a selection of William Herschel's music.