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The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science Paperback – March 2, 2010

4.4 out of 5 stars 139 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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)

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1st edition (March 2, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400031877
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400031870
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.3 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (139 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #87,153 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Ronald H. Clark on September 8, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have found the history of British science to be one of the best ways to study the intellectual history of the 19th century. This book, which focuses upon the period between Captain Cook's first voyage in 1768 and Darwin's Beagle journey in 1831,takes the story of British science back a bit earlier, and explains some of the important precursor developments to the later dazzling Victorian period. If that was all it did, that would be plenty for the author has written a fine scientific history. But the book is far richer than even this accomplishment for it seeks to establish ties between science and the British Romantics, surprisingly demonstrating that not only did Romantic poets and painters not run away from science, some of them embraced and even engaged in it. Along the way, the profession of scientific researcher emerged as well as some of our basic ideas about scientific progress.

The narrative is built around a series of significant individuals, for whom the author creates scientific biographies. The first is Joseph Banks (1743-1820) who became the godfather of British science during this period from his post as President of the Royal Society. One of the major sciences that underwent development during this period was astronomy; several chapters are devoted to the pathbreaking work of William Herschel (who discovered Uranus) and his sister Carolyn who pioneered new developments and telescopic designs. In the process their work turned the attention of artists to the skies and the evolutin of universe. A chapter catches the excitement of early balloonists and the Romantic wake they left behind as they explored the skies. Exploration was anordsother feature of the period, and was encouraged by Banks who had been on Cook's first voyage to the South Pacific.
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I loved this book. For me it captured some sense of the transition from "natural philosophy" (thinking about and speculating about nature) to science (making careful observations and weaving those observations into theories of nature). I loved how Richard Holmes brought some of the people involved in this transition to life. The role of Joseph Banks, the relationship between William and Caroline and John Herschel and many, many more delightful insights into the people who influenced the transition to scientific thought.

Here's a quote from John Herschel in the book that to me captures some of the sense of the Age of Wonder:

"To the natural philosopher there is no natural object unimportant or trifling...A mind that has once imbibed a taste for scientific enquiry has within itself an inexhaustible source of pure and exciting contemplations. One would think that Shakespeare had such a mind in view when he describes a contemplative man finding:

Tongues in trees - books in the running brooks
Sermons in stones - and good in everything

Where the uninformed and unenquiring eye perceives neither novelty nor beauty, he walks in the midst of wonders."

I know we all have our particular tastes, but this was for me the best book I've read - on any topic.
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Format: Hardcover
Brilliant job--a great topic, excellent writing, everything you want in a book. Don't be set off by the length. It is an easy read.

I am fascinated by the history of science and technology. This book is a must for those interested in a broad overview of the time period covered. Davy, those wonderful and crazy fellows with air balloons, the voyages to the Pacific to explore....and so on. A real delight is how the author eemplifies what CP Snow alluded to as two cultures---science and the humanities. In this book they find one another. There's even some hints of sex...scientists and sex--what a tease!

Just as important as its relevancy is the writing. This is a gifted author. His writing flows effortless, it is punctuated with pithy observations (e.g., the author must have had a great time visiting the homes and neighborhoods of many of the main characters--how poignant that most are still there but not even celebrated for what happened there).

The book made me wish that we might still have individual greatness in the sciences, that we had something akin to a singular scientific academy like the one that existed in those days. Perhaps a hundred years from now humans will be able to recognize, like this author, the important social, literary, and scientific currents that flow through today. I hope so.
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This is a marvelous book, depicting an era where scientific work was far different than it is now. One did not need years of training or huge government investment to make a major discovery back then, but rather hard work and ingenuity. As an example, an amateur like William Hershel, a composer and instrument-maker could become the greatest astronomer of his generation. What's more, the discoveries were intelligible to all educated men of the time and could affect the arts, as we see from scientific comments of writers such as Samuel Johnson, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley. Who would ever have known that the author of the RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER also coined the word "psychosomatic" and may have coined the word "scientist"? The writer of this book did.
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