The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

Paperback

By (author) Richard Holmes

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  • Publisher: HarperPress
  • Format: Paperback | 380 pages
  • Dimensions: 130mm x 198mm x 42mm | 800g
  • Publication date: 3 September 2009
  • Publication City/Country: London
  • ISBN 10: 0007149530
  • ISBN 13: 9780007149537
  • Illustrations note: Illustrations (chiefly col.), map, ports. (chiefly col.)
  • Sales rank: 10,747

Product description

Shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and winner of the Royal Society Prize for Science Books, Richard Holmes's dazzling portrait of the age of great scientific discovery is a groundbreaking achievement. The book opens with Joseph Banks, botanist on Captain Cook's first Endeavour voyage, who stepped onto a Tahitian beach in 1769 fully expecting to have located Paradise. Back in Britain, the same Romantic revolution that had inspired Banks was spurring other great thinkers on to their own voyages of artistic and scientific discovery - astronomical, chemical, poetical, philosophical - that together made up the 'age of wonder'. In this breathtaking group biography, Richard Holmes tells the stories of the period's celebrated innovators and their great scientific discoveries: from telescopic sight to the miner's lamp, and from the first balloon flight to African exploration.

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Author information

Richard Holmes is a Fellow of the British Academy, and was Professor of Biographical Studies at the University of East Anglia (2001-2007). He was awarded the OBE in 1992. His first book, 'Shelley: The Pursuit', won the Somerset Maugham Prize in 1974. 'Coleridge: Early Visions' won the 1989 Whitbread Book of the Year Award, and 'Dr Johnson and Mr Savage' won the James Tait Black Prize. 'Coleridge: Darker Reflections' won the Duff Cooper Prize and the Heinemann Award. He lives in London and Norfolk with the novelist Rose Tremain.

Review quote

'Rich and sparkling, this is a wonderful book.' Claire Tomalin, Guardian, Books of the Year 'Exuberant...Holmes suffuses his book with the joy, hope and wonder of the revolutionary era. Reading it is like a holiday in a sunny landscape, full of fascinating bypaths that lead to unexpected vistas...it succeeds inspiringly.' John Carey, Sunday Times 'Thrilling: a portrait of bold adventure among the stars, across the oceans, deep into matter, poetry and the human psyche.' Peter Forbes, Independent 'A glorious blend of the scientific and the literary that deserves to carry off armfuls of awards and confirms Holmes's reputation as one on the stellar biographers of the age.' Dominic Sandbrook, Daily Telegraph, Books of the Year 'No question - the non-fiction book of the year is Richard Holmes's "The Age of Wonder", not only beautifully written, but also kicking open a new perspective on the Romantic age.' Andrew Marr, Observer, Books of the Year 'Itself a wonder - a masterpiece of skilful and imaginative storytelling.' Michael Holroyd, Guardian, Books of the Year 'Dazzling and approachable. It's a brilliantly written account...original in its connections and very generous in its attention.' Andrew Motion, Guardian, Books of the Year 'Witty, intellectually dazzling and wholly gripping.' Richard Mabey, Guardian, Books of the Year 'So immediate and so beguiling is Holmes's prose that we are with him all the way.' Sunday Telegraph 'Brimming with anecdote, Holmes's enthusiastic narrative amply conveys the period's spirited, often reckless pursuit of discovery with an astute balance of technical detail and the wider cultural picture.' Financial Times

Editorial reviews

Energetic analysis of the "Romantic Age of Science."Romanticism, the deeply emotional artistic movement of the second half of the 18th century, was partly a reaction against the pragmatism of Enlightenment scientists. However, British historian Holmes (Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer, 2000, etc.) writes, the divide between scientific endeavors and artistic pursuits was not always so clearly delineated. The author focuses primarily on the lives of two men who straddled both worlds, who embraced "Romantic science" and pursued it with the passion of poets or painters. Astronomer William Herschel, who discovered the planet Uranus in 1781, started his career as a musician. That led to an interest in mathematics and then astronomy, which he pursued with the same emotional fervor as any classical music piece. He even compared his skill at seeing astronomical phenomena with the skill required to play Handel's fugues. Holmes also looks at the British chemist Humphry Davy, who, among other accomplishments, discovered that chlorine and iodine were elements. Early on, Davy wrote poetry, and later became friends with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. One of his poems celebrated "science, whose delicious water flows / From Nature's bosom." Davy's enthusiasm led to risky, self-destructive behavior - he often inhaled strange chemical gases as experiments, a practice that nearly killed him. While partaking of nitrous oxide with acquaintances, he extolled the glories of science: "I dream of Science restoring to Nature what Luxury, what Civilization have stolen from her - pure hearts, the forms of angels, bosoms beautiful, and panting with Joy & Hope." Davy may have had a brilliant scientist's brain, but he had the heart and soul of a poet. How these two contradictory ideas not only coexisted, but flourished together during the Romantic era, makes for engrossing reading.Enjoyable excavation of a time when science and art fed off each other, to the benefit of both communities. (Kirkus Reviews)