18 April 2010

The Age of Wonder

I kept seeing Richard Holmes's The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science on all sorts of best-of and nominations lists, winning the Royal Society Prize for Science Books (yes, that Royal Society).  Then the book won the General Nonfiction Award from the National Book Critics Circle.

So I downloaded to my nook and started reading.

The Age of Wonder chronicles the intersection of art and science in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain (primarily Britain, there's a little continental Europe in there).  This is the period when scientific progress just takes off, the discoveries in chemistry, physics, zoology, and astronomy come so fast.  The Romantic movement in art and literature also rises in this period, eschewing rational and realist ideals for sensibility and the sublime in nature and emotion.

Holmes covers approximately one hundred years of scientific history and his book is such fun to read. I had no idea that so many revered scientists - Herschel, Davy, Banks - wrote elegant poetry and prose and so many of the literati - Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron - were deeply interested in progress in "natural philosophy."  We don't foster polymaths anymore so it's easy to forget multi-talented individuals exist.  Holmes also brings a forgotten contributor, Caroline Herschel, to the forefront; Caroline, sister of Sir William Herschel, tirelessly performed work that was essential in mapping comets and deep stars in an age when women's contributions to science were miniscule.  There's a chapter on the ballooning craze that swept Europe after the discovery of the properties of gasses.  There's a chapter on vivisection and vitalism that inspired Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.  It is all so fascinating, the way all the pieces interconnect.

Although a "history of science" book, Holmes doesn't dwell on the scientific explanations and instead concentrates on the development of the scientific process and the way science fed the inspiration of the poet.  I feel like there is an assumption that the reader of this book will do his or her own background reading if necessary and that is so refreshing in a scientific book - I can enjoy it without getting side-tracked by explanations I don't need.  I really loved reading The Age of Wonder.


  1. sounds like a fabulous read! I'm going to put this on a list for my husband for his birthday- I think he'd love it!

  2. I think he would, too.

    I forgot to mention there's also a boatload of notes and some pictures/diagrams - things I think are quite necessary in science and history books. :)