The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes
Finished reading on March 30th, 2016
I had come in contact with this book in bookstores several times. The title and subtitle were just interesting enough for me to pick it up, but the blurbs and short description on the back didn’t motivate me enough to want to read it.
That all didn’t matter anymore when one day my boss said she had just finished reading a good book on the history of science in the beginning of 19th century. So I borrowed it and felt compelled to read it as soon and fast as possible, to get back to books that I’ve selected (in my infinite wisdom) myself.
“The Age of Wonder” paints an image of what was going on in science at the very end of 18th century and beginning of 19th century in Great Britain. When I started reading this book I was quite familiar with William and John Herschel (if you’re looking for a great book about William Herschel see this), I might have come across the name of Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday’s name crept up several times during my stint of studying physics, but for the most part I had never heard of the scientists and explorers that were mentioned in the book. (Which explains why the mention of someone called Joseph Banks on the back of the book didn’t leave me with the need to read this book).
This brings me to the first point I wanted to make – It’s about British scientists or people working in Great Britain, so I’m sure my view is somewhat different if I’d be British. So to me it seemed like it’s just a tiny piece of a puzzle that shows UK.
The book is truly fascinating and informative and some of the life-stories seem really haunting, but if you have an idea what was going on in the world at the same time, it’s great, otherwise you might just forget the wider context. If you keep in mind UK, then it’s totally fine.
In the book you can read about Joseph Bank’s expedition to Tahiti (very curious story there) and his later life as the president of the Royal Society; about William Herschel and his sister Caroline and how the first discovered Uranus and the second discovered several comets and was of great help to her brother as his assistant.
Then there’s the stories about Humphry Davy – which were quite illuminating, and the authors description was so vivid, that you could imagine yourself being in the laboratory and seeing young Davy breathing in laughing gas or trying to find a way to build a safe lamp for mines.
It’s interesting how the great Joseph Banks, William Herschel and Humphry Davy leave you with different impressions as you get further into the book – they all start out young and enthusiastic and you might end up with the feeling that for example Humphry Davy wouldn’t have been a great adviser to have in his old age, although when he was young, he might have been quite cool.
There are more people in the book ofcourse, ut for that you should pick up the book. 🙂
It was a very enjoyable read, especially because of the mention of poets and writers of the same time period, and how they saw the scientists etc.