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The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science Hardcover – July 14, 2009
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Amazon Exclusive: Oliver Sacks on The Age of Wonder
Oliver Sacks is the author of Musicophilia, Awakenings,The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and many other books, for which he has received numerous awards, including the Hawthornden Prize, a Polk Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and lives in New York City, where he is a practicing neurologist. Read his exclusive guest review of The Age of Wonder:
I am a Richard Holmes addict. He is an incomparable biographer, but in The Age of Wonder, he rises to new heights and becomes the biographer not of a single figure, but of an entire unique period, when artist and scientist could share common aims and ambitions and a common language--and together create a "romantic," humanist science. We are once again on the brink of such an age, when science and art will come together in new and powerful ways. For this we could have no better model than the lives of William and Caroline Herschel and Humphry Davy, whose dedication and scientific inventiveness were combined with a deep sense of wonder and poetry in the universe. Only Holmes, who is so deeply versed in the people and culture of eighteenth-century science, could tell their story with such verve and resonance for our own time.
(Photo © Elena Seibert)
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. 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)
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Top Customer Reviews
I have read a lot of science history, particularly physics, but this book introduced me to a number of the late natural philosophers / early scientists with whom I was only faintly aware.. Consider Holmes book as a sequel to Lisa Jardines "Ingenious Pursuits."
Because many of these discoveries revealed natural phenomena at work, belying any supernatural explanations, many of these investigators became agnostics or atheists.
One surprising revelation by Holmes was the close interplay between scientific research and the arts. Poets such as Coleridge, Byron, Keats,Peacock, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley, Robert Southey, and Edward Young often wrote about science or referred to scientific achievements in their writings.On the other hand the scientists themselves were often inspired to express themselves with their own poetical musings.
Be that as it may, the opening chapter on Joseph Banks with Captain Cook in Tahiti is great fun. We are able observe the sometimes tragic, sometimes comic, always fascinating, interactions of people with different societal background assumptions and institutional realities. The two chapters on William Herschel are outstanding as we see how William Herschel discovers that deep space necessitates that recognition of deep time. The personal stories provide helpful context to the scientific progress of the era. In summary, I am hard pressed not to recommend this book.
My only complaint was that Holmes seemingly chose to center around British science, at the expense of exploring the broader impact of Romanticism and fascinating characters like Humboldt, Cuvier, Linnaeus, Goethe, and a plethora of others. Perhaps there will be a sequel?