Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Review of The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes (Harper, 2009)

There are a couple of different ways to explore the development of science in the Romantic period (the end of the eighteenth and beginning of nineteenth century).  One is to do a broad survey, charting developments in thought across different domains and contextualising these within a general social and political frame, or to focus on a single domain as an exemplar.  Or one could detail the biography of a key individual or institution, or detail the interwoven biographies of a number of key personalities.  In The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes mixes all these approaches together to provide a portrait of scientific development in Britain from 1768 to roughly 1840. 

In the main, the book pivots around three central characters, botanist Joseph Banks, astronomer William Herschel and chemist Humphrey Davy.  On the one hand, this focus provides some in-depth discussion of their personal lives and their professional and political work, and their interactions with each other and their collaborators.  Especially fascinating was the interactions between these scientists and literary figures and the way in which science and the arts were intertwined.  On the other, it provides a relatively narrow focus on the work of particular individuals.  As a result, rather than getting a broad picture of developments in chemistry over a 50-60 year period in Britain and elsewhere, one is presented with the work of Davy and little else.  That is fine, except occasionally Holmes does provide a broader view, for example providing a quite detailed overview of ballooning that charts various developments by pioneers in both Britain and France, and setting out a broad sweep of the development of science in Britain from the mid-1820s onwards. 

In addition, the chapter about Mungo Park was like an orphan child; Park was an adventurer to Africa rather than a great scientist and his two trips added little to science.  And the material is quite selective.  For example, in detailing Banks’ trip to the Pacific, Holmes concentrates exclusively on his time in Tahiti and largely ignores the reason for the trip, the transit of Venus, which was a significant international scientific endeavour.  Moreover, the industrial revolution that was unfolding at the same time, with significant advances in engineering and manufacturing is all but absent except for a discussion of the development of the Davy lamp.  The result is a fascinating but uneven read that is often drawn-out. 

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