Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes (author), Gildart Jackson (narrator)

Blackstone Audio, ISBN 9781455114320, June 2011

This is a fascinating account of the growth of science in Romantic Age of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Holmes looks at the period through the lives of ground-breaking scientists, and illuminates the intersections between science, literature, and art during the period.

Among the scientists discussed in detail are Joseph Banks, William and Caroline Herschel, Humphrey Davy, Michael Faraday, and a collection of truly nutty but ground-breaking (or is that, and ground-breaking) balloonists.

One of the most engaging aspects of science in this period is that it was all new enough that any smart, interested person with some (not necessarily large) resources could potentially make an important contribution. Joseph Banks was educated as a botanist, and made one of his greatest contributions with detailed and insightful anthropological observations of the Tahitians. William Herschel was trained as a musician, and his sister Caroline barely educated at all; they became prominent astronomers who made major contributions to the study of the heavens. Michael Faraday was a bookseller who was hired by Humphrey Davy as a lab assistant. Some of these men were born wealthy; some were not. None started out on the path where they made their greatest contributions.

Joseph Banks accompanied James Cook on the first of his voyages to the south Pacific, as a naturalist, the same role in which Charles Darwin later sailed on the HMS Beagle. A major purpose of that voyage was to observe an eclipse of the sun that would be visible in Tahiti. While Banks did a great deal of botany while he was in Tahiti, he also made extensive and detailed observations of the Tahitians, differing from most of his fellow British by being open to--indeed, becoming deeply involved in, the Tahitian culture. Initially friendly relations with the Tahitians soured as Cook and others, unable or unwilling to let go of their own preconceptions, repeatedly offended them. After they left Tahiti, the voyage deteriorated further, with conflicts, epidemic illness, and death. The survivors, including Cook and Banks, arrived back in Britain devastated and took months to recover. Still a young man at this point, Banks was at the beginning of his career, and remained a major force in British science for decades to come--but less as a scientist himself, rather as the president of the Royal Society, guiding and encouraging the scientific careers of others.

With Banks' story setting the framework, we see the Herschels start out as a musician and his singer/housekeeper sister and become two of the most important astronomers of the age, Davy beginning as a medical student and transforming into a chemist and engineer, and then into a mystical, visionary writer. We see the beginnings of true specialization in science, and the founding of the first subject-specialized science professional associations, separate from the Royal Society, which had, and still sought, to encompass them all. We see, also, the connections and interactions between the scientists and the writers and artists of the age, including Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats.

It's a fascinating story, and  I promise I have not even scratched the surface of it. Holmes seeks to reveal character as well as accomplishments, and show the ways in which the romantic sensibility, which we generally thing of as antithetical to science, in fact inspired and encouraged the Romantic Age scientists.

Highly recommended.

I borrowed this book from the local library.

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