Some books settle with you, they sit somewhere more deeply and profoundly within you than others. The Age Of Wonder by Richard Holmes is one such book. As a rule on WhatBook I won’t add my own personal opinion to posts and let the reviewers provide you with the guidance, but it felt necessary here to callout the impact this book had on me.
Holmes is a distinguished biographer reknowned for his comprehensive books on Coleridge and Shelley and an expert on the Romantic era. With The Age Of Wonder he is sticking with this time period but switching from a focus on the Arts to the Sciences, looking at the great scientists and discoveries that emerged, and bringing that same love of the period and the deep understanding of the people involved:
Richard Holmes is one of England’s most admired biographers, his particular area of expertise being the romantic era in England and France. His previous books include exceptionally lively biographies of the poets Shelley and Coleridge and two volumes of shorter essays and profiles: “Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer” and “Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer.” In “The Age of Wonder” he shifts his focus from literary genius to scientific genius, as he traces the course of English science from roughly 1768, when Capt. Cook began his voyage round the world, to 1831, when young Charles Darwin joined the Beagle on her expedition to the Galapagos Islands.
As Holmes himself says, the book is “relay race of scientific stories”, following the great scientists of the age as they probed and prodded at the known world, testing conventions and assumptions or diving in to the unknown to find answers:
Holmes plunges the reader into daily lives of the leading “natural philosophers” of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (the peculiar neologism “scientist” would not be coined until 1834) as they were radically challenging familiar notions of the size, shape, age, and structure of the universe. Science was not simply a way of understanding things that already existed; it was adding to the stock of available reality.
National Book Critics Circle
But this is not just a review of great men and their discoveries:
Holmes’s telling mimics a quality he sees as central to this scientific surge, “driven by a common ideal of intense, even reckless, personal commitment to discovery”. He gives us stories of individuals braving great odds, taking risks, undergoing physical and intellectual tests of endurance. This may seem dangerously like an old-fashioned narrative of “great men”, but it is very different, partly because Holmes is acknowledging the vital role of collaboration, the importance of the long, unglamorous slog to get results, and the vagaries of chance and luck, but chiefly because it is a narrative of ideas.
At the core of the book is a rejection of the apparent tensions between the arts and the sciences. That science is seemingly hell-bent on tearing down the veil of wonder around the natural world in search of cold hard facts, to the chagrin of the artistic community is roundly rejected:
The kernel of Holmes’ argument is that the sense of wonder at the natural world that is central to so much Romantic art and poetry propelled a new generation of scientific innovation and inquiry.
In fact it is something he entirely reverses, calling out the partnership between the two world views:
Building on a generation of revisionist scholarship that has been barely visible beyond the groves of academe, Holmes triumphantly shows that the Romantic age was one of symbiosis rather than opposition, in which scientists such as Sir Humphry Davy were also poets and poets such as Coleridge had a shaping influence on scientists – we discover indeed that it was Coleridge who was responsible for the early 19th-century invention of the term ‘scientist’ as an alternative to the older nomenclature ‘natural philosopher’.
Where Holmes thrives is in his penetrating and deeply personal connection with the scientists themselves, as he weaves a narrative between scientific discoveries:
As with all Holmes’s work, from his early study of Shelley to his penetrating, celebratory life of Coleridge, you feel that these are people he has lived with. He knows them from letters, journals and notebooks as well as published works. He has puzzled over their individual casts of mind – the way that Herschel, for instance, jumps so easily among languages and musical and astronomical notation. He knows their small passions, like Davy’s love of fly fishing. He can see their houses, like the cluttered parlour of 19 Rivers Street, Bath, where astronomical instruments share space with the piano and violin. He has the trick of making us feel we share their experience, like the amazed joy of Banks watching the Tahitians surfing. But he is interested, most of all, in the dreams that start people on their path and the way they pick up and modify the knowledge passed on by others.
I spoke earlier of feeling changed by this book. That sense of something stirring within me centered around the feeling that our age has lost the wonder that was so eloquently brought to life by Holmes. We have the drive and dedication. We have the commitment to the scientific method and the technological advancement. But do we have the sense of place? The presence and awareness to grasp the great changes happening around us? I’m not sure, and perhaps Davy and Herschel didn’t either. But what is certain is that Holmes does have that wonder. His prose oozes awe at the drive, determination and above all romantic dream they shared of discovering what is not yet known:
The technical details are all here, the exact construction of telescopes, the mechanism of balloons, the composition of gases, the precise difference between Davy’s and Stephenson’s safety lamp. The author’s own astonished sense of wonder jumps out of many footnotes – like the fact that the best mould for making a metal lens for a telescope was made of horse dung, and this remained so right up to the telescope that Hubble used in the 1920s. But in Holmes’s account of these lives the technical minutiae of his subjects’ working lives are always matched by the emotional intricacies. The work itself is a passion, but sex and love and family ties are also powerful elements, embodied in Banks’s fiery-eyed Tahitian and Davy’s dream of the nut-brown maiden, realised perhaps, at the end of his days.
Scientists, like poets, need a sense of wonder, a sense of humility and a sense of humour. Holmes has all three in abundance.
A highly recommended book by an extremely talented writer with his finger firmly on the human pulse of the past. You can hear Richard Holmes in this YouTube video discuss some of the key discoveries and characters in the book, and see him in an interview on C-Span. There is also a great short Radiolab podcast episode featuring him that I highly recommend for insight in to the author himself. He also writes for the New York Review of Books and The Guardian.
The Age Of Wonder
How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
By Richard Holmes
Illustrated. 552 pp. Pantheon Books.
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Image of An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768 courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.