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Book Review: The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes

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The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, recreates for you the thinking of the late 18th and mid-19th centuries. While the book clearly outlines the scientific thinking of those times, it also incorporates the poetic, artistic, political, and more importantly, the philosophical thinking of the Romantic Age.

Holmes describes in detail the scientific explorations of Joseph Banks as he visited and explored the southern hemisphere. Banks was especially infatuated by a voyage to Tahiti around 1777, an island which he considered Paradise after his interactions with the simple beauty of its native folk. Yet, always, always, he longed to return back to England with news of his explorations.

"I traveled among unknown men, In lands beyond the sea;
Nor, England did I know till then; what love I bore to thee."
(Coleridge)

Then too, The Age of Wonder explains how Wilhelm Herschel devoted his life to the study of the stars and planets with optical instruments he himself had made. The discovery of both Uranus and Saturn are his. In addition, Herschel was the first astronomer to conceive of deep space. Studying a distant nebula, he concluded that what appeared to be hazy gases, were in fact countless stars circling about a center. He predicted the concept that the universe consisted of countless suns — its Godly expanse enormous.

"Onward they move, amid their bright abode,
Space without bound, the bosom of their God!"
(Erasmus Darwin)

Traveling from England to France by air was first done successfully by Blanchard and Jeffries on July 7, 1785. The era following this momentous occasion was not without casualties, but it did spark man's interest in travel to distant and remote places which at the time was long, dangerous, and tedious. More often than not, ballooning was celebrated by both poets and scientists.


"The calm Philosopher in ether sails;
Views broader stars and breathes in purer gales;
Sees like a map in many a waving line,
Round earth's blue plains her lucid waters shine."
(Erasmus Darwin)

The Age of Wonder explains in great detail Mungo Park's explorations in Africa, ending with his mysterious death on that distant continent. Then it not only talks about but also gives vivid drawings of Davy's early lamps to minimize the countless explosions occurring in England's coal mines due to explosive gases uncovered while mining.

Equally interesting are the experiments done at this time with electricity. There were scientists and philosophers alike who considered "the electric" as the very soul of a person, imagining someday to be able to revive the dead who had lost or damaged this inner spark of life. Mary Shelley's cult novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818) became the rage among people of all backgrounds — her imagined creature imbued with a new life thrilled its readers.

"But these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, his shriveled complexion and straight black lips."
(Mary Shelley)

But her book also became anathema to people who felt she transgressed religious teachings. Indeed, they thought it downright immoral.

"Do not go to the Opera House to see the Monstrous Drama, founded on the improper work called FRANKENSTEIN!!! ? The novel itself is of a decidedly immoral tendency." (1823 leaflet about Presumption)

The Age of Wonder with its colorful diagrams, drawings, and artists renderings in so many ways is a true classic. It is historically accurate, it is scientifically accurate, and it is undoubtedly fascinating. This is an informative work that will stand the test of time to be found in libraries as an authoritative text on the Romantic Age. The book is easy to read because it does not bog down the reader with impertinent facts and mathematical formulae.

I would highly recommend this thoughtful book to philosophy, literature, and science buffs because it clearly shows how the thinking, the writings, and the accomplishments of any Romanticist worthy of note inspired the thinking of that time. It was they who planted the seeds and grew the flowers that would prepare the world for the great Victorian age and the discoveries to follow in upcoming centuries.

"To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears."
(Wordsworth)

 

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