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

3.98 of 5 stars 3.98  ·  rating details  ·  4,650 ratings  ·  558 reviews
A riveting history of the men and women whose discoveries and inventions at the end of the eighteenth century gave birth to the Romantic Age of Science.

When young Joseph Banks stepped onto a Tahitian beach in 1769, he hoped to discover Paradise. Inspired by the scientific ferment sweeping through Britain, the botanist had sailed with Captain Cook on his first "Endeavour" v...more
Hardcover, 380 pages
Published July 14th 2009 by HarperPress (first published October 1st 2008)
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There's nothing like reading a book about really smart and energetic people back in ye olden days to make you feel like a lazy piece of crap. I'm sitting here in front of a magic box where I could type in the words 'Hubble telescope' in an image search and instantly see pictures of distant planets and galaxies but it seems like too much effort. William Herschel had to invent his own telescopes just to get a decent view of the moon. I'm sure Sir William would like nothing better than to crawl out...more
Will Byrnes
Updated - July 31, 2013 - added a link at bottom

Whereas Newton, Hooke, Locke and Descartes were pop stars of the first scientific revolution in the 17th century, Richard Holmes looks at what Coleridge called a “second scientific revolution,” the era of scientific breakthrough between Captain Cook’s first circumnavigation in 1768 and Darwin’s journey on the Beagle in 1831. He does this by a sort of relay, beginning with Joseph Banks, a botanist on Cooks’ ship, Endeavor, connecting him to William...more

AWE: "an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like."

I would like to put in an official plea to wrest the word AWE back from the frantically freaked-out readers of teen romance who squawk "epic awesomeness", sorry, that should be "EPIC AWESOMENESS" and then a spasm with the shift-1 key, because words just cannot express the eloquence they feel at an author's ability to re-hash perennial adolescent angst at...more
I was a little upset at this book for having to end. Holmes writes with a palpable compassion for his subjects. The book's major players are so fully animated that I couldn't help but feel a sadness at parting with these historical figures, most of whom I had never heard of before and all of whom, of course, had been dead for more than a century before I was born. I think that the way Holmes structured the book, with the same kind of intricate plot architecture as a good 19th century novel, real...more
I think the time has come for me to admit that I am either not going to finish this, or at least that I will finish it in very slow chunks over a much longer period than I had planned.

Holmes' book purports to put forth a unifying thesis about how science influenced the Romantic generation. All the new discoveries in science are meant to have communicated to this generation endless new possibilities, which goes a long way to explaining the reputation this bunch has gone down with for credulity, e...more
Roxanne Russell
Humanists who are fascinated by science but not scientists will love this book. Holmes has that rare talent of being both fastidious and passionate about his subjects. He makes every exploration, every night of star-gazing, every laborious act of tool-building and every failed or successful experiment, a love story.
This book came along at a great time for me. I'm a humanist who's been seeking more practical applications for my passions for years, and I find inspiration here. Holmes weaves the li...more
May 25, 2012 Elaine rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: any reader
Recommended to Elaine by: nobody. I saw it on a list of library books
Shelves: ebooks
Wow! I finished this yesterday, and I'm still reeling. Who knew that Balloonists soaring across the skies fomented the French Revolution? Or that poets like Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Wordsworth--all the Romantic greats--thought they were akin to the great scientists of the age, and the scientists themselves were poets. Actually, scientist was not yet a word when Herschel was exploding European mindsets with his discoveries of the infinity of the stars. Discoverers like Herschel, Faraday, Davy,...more
Excellent account of "the second scientific revolution" led by astronomy and chemistry at the end of the 18th century. The period Holmes covers with his engaging biographical focus on the careers of a handful of individuals is between Cook's voyage of 1768 and Darwin's of 1831. In this epoch of "Romantic" science, leading figures tended to see no conflict between what they did as scientists and as poets and philosophers. In fact, the term "science" was not widely adopted until 1834. Holmes accou...more
Cassandra Kay Silva
Joseph Banks in the beginning had me hooked. I have always enjoyed stories that involve Captain Cooks voyages, in some ways yes they are terribly romantic, but have always found this Banks figure fairly elusive. The opening chapters really spread his life out before me and I felt really connected to the character and his life struggles especially in Tahiti. I became less connected with him during the later chapters (as he was not the focus- and this seemed to bother me a bit). Perhaps it was bec...more
Douglas Dalrymple
Imagination, as well as reason, is necessary to perfection in the philosophic [i.e. scientific] mind. A rapidity of combination, a power of perceiving analogies, and of comparing them by facts, is the creative source of discovery.

~ Humphry Davy

The progress of science is to destroy Wonder...

~ Thomas Carlyle

To what degree are the aims of science aligned with those of art? When and why did they begin to diverge? These are some of the more fascinating questions explored in this wonderful book, a mas...more
I adored this book. It is filled with great mini-biographies-- I especially liked the parts of William and Caroline Hershel (I knew nothing about Caroline before reading this). But to me one of the most relevant things about the book is that one of the things its about is the creation of the genre of science fiction. There is a chapter about Frankenstein, which is often thought of as the first real science fiction novel, but also it lets you see that the western European world is, even 200 years...more
This is a wonderful book about science during the Romantic era. The first few chapters are best for understanding the development of science. The last few chapters are best for understanding the interactions between science and culture, mostly prose and poetry. At the beginning of the story, the English word "scientist" did not even exist. Scientists were called "philosophers", and many of the greatest works of scientists during this era, were philosophical speculations. This is a beautiful book...more
Holmes, author of a magisterial two volume biography of Coleridge, probably knows more about the Romantic Poets and their circle than anyone alive, knowledge which informs every page of this wonderful historical narrative. A narrative of scientific discovery, hinged upon the belief that there existed at the end of the 18th century one culture -- not two -- in which poets and scientists conversed in the same language. Call it 'romantic science.' It is a rip-roaring tale, filled with indelibly dra...more
A beautiful and sympathetic account of the great age of British science, through which Holmes proves yet again that he is our foremost chronicler of the Romantic Age. His deft handling the scientific discoveries that made these men and women - the Herschels (William, Caroline, and John), Joseph Banks, Michael Farady, Humphry Davy, et al - so important is admirable, of course, but more impressive is his ability to marshal an enormous amount of research into a coherent, pleasurable narrative. A ma...more
This is everything an historical non-fiction book ought to be -- save for the snippets of untranslated French. The starring players of Romantic science are palpably human, their discoveries are richly detailed, the thirst for and pursuit of knowledge are beautifully raw and exposed.

This is a heady and dense read, but the slow pace it demands only allows the reader to savor every detail, every "Eureka!," every moment of intellectual clarity. I absolutely loved every second I spent with this book.
I cannot recommend this book enough. What strikes me most about Holmes is his ability to weave together what modern man has learned to compartmentalize- the sciences and the humanities. Before science was "science," it was natural philosophy. Before scientists were "scientists," they were natural philosophers and poets. Richard Holmes brings science and art back together in order to tell the story of how the late eighteenth century produced the foundation of what would become modern science.

What an incredible book! Holmes is a biographer and the book is more like a biography, or several biographies, than a science book - as it should be.

Isaac Newton died in 1727 and Darwin didn’t make his voyage until 1831. Science was not dead between those years. Holmes uses those years to identify the years of what he calls the age of Romantic science - the Age of Wonder.

The big names were Joseph Banks, William Herschel and Humphrey Davy. Banks explored and wrote about Tahiti, Herschel, with h...more
Frank Stein
This was the first book assigned for my new semester, which means I'm going back to reading school stuff round the clock again, but luckily this first one was a great one. It's really a combined biography of Joseph Banks (President of the Royal Society for the Advancement of Science, explorer of Tahiti), William Herschel (discovered Uranus), and Humphrey Davy (experimented with nitrous oxide, and also became President of Royal Society), along with a couple of other secondary stories. The best is...more
In writing this review, I am keeping in mind that an old and very dear friend of mine (who has read and liked this book) is highly interested in my evaluation. I mention this because it leads to an important point about the book: the background of the reader will strongly determine what he or she gets out of reading The Age of Wonder. For my part, I approach this work as a sociologist who is currently (fall 2013) preparing to take a doctoral exam in the sociology of science. Hence, I already hav...more
This is an amazing book. It doesn't have as much to do with literary Romanticism as I had originally hoped, but by the end of the first chapter I didn't care. Holmes is an excellent writer, and he makes the excitement and amazement of the scientists and explorers he profiles live. I think my favorite sections are the ones that deal with Joseph Banks, who went on a scientific voyage to Tahiti as a young man and, despite a successful career as a botanist in England, mentor to many younger scientis...more
emi Bevacqua
This book is kind of the ultimate departure from my personal comfort zone: nearly 500 pages on the history of western science juxtaposed with poetry. Richard Holmes is an amazing researcher and writer, he really brings the age to life and I loved the beautiful color art inserts. The first section was very straightforward, about the young explorer Joseph Banks and his discoveries in Tahiti; in the next we meet a young astronomist that Banks discovered, named William Herschel and also his sister-a...more
Amy Sturgis
This is a fascinating study of what might be termed the Second Scientific Revolution, defined as the time between Captain James Cook's first around-the-globe expedition (begun in 1768) and Charles Darwin's voyage to the Galapagos (begun in 1831), also known as the transition from Enlightenment to Romantic science. Three figures in particular loom large here, namely siblings William and Caroline Herschel, pioneers of astronomy, and William Davy, pioneer of chemistry. Holmes does a worthy job of i...more
Mar 11, 2010 Stephanie rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Nerdy philosophers
In 1768, Captain Cook and his crew set out to circumnavigate the globe, a journey that would open a whole new world up to Europeans and fuel a renewed interest in science and exploration. Just 63 years later, the Beagle embarked on an expedition that would culminate in Darwin’s theory of evolution, a theory that, it may be argued, has removed the romance from science and replaced it with cold, hard logic.

The years bookended by these two historic sea voyages are the time period explored in Richa...more
This is a fascinating, page turning, fact-filled history of late 18th and early 19th Century science, known as Romantic science due to the epoch it is set in. I know my Romantic poets and authors as I studied a lot of this era, the era being the first phase of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the earth moving event that was the French Revolution. The era is marked with great social, economic and political change, combined with a major flourishing of culture and the arts right across Euro...more
I forgot about this book until I saw it again here. My father sent this book to me a few years ago. I enjoyed learning about the various people, scientists as well as non-scientists. I like that Holmes gives so much detail about, for instance, the grinding of the mirror for the telescope. And how it was paid for. For me, the book would be just as enjoyable if it was a collection of anecdotes and free of any speculation as to whether or how the literature and paintings of the time may or may not...more
Karin Gastreich
Richard Holmes' chronicle of British science during the late 18th and early 19th centuries is a must read. The cast of characters is large, and includes the incomparable Joseph Banks, the brilliant and eccentric German astronomer William Herschel, his equally accomplished sister Caroline, the intrepid explorer Mungo Park, and the charismatic chemist Humphry Davy. Together they form a community of scientists living in an age unlike any other. Holmes does an amazing job of immersing the reader in...more
The Age of Wonder is a delightful evocation of the 'birth' of British science and it's key players. Joseph Banks in Paradise, Herschel Among the Stars and Davy on the Gas are just some of the author's playful chapter headings, but this is anything but light stuff.

Weaving together the fascinating biographies of Banks (botanist extraordinaire from Cook's voyage to the Pacific in 1767-9 and hub of British scientific patronage for 40 years), William Herschel (the astronomer who discovered the nebula...more
I have nothing but praise for The Age of Wonder. The Romantic Period was indeed an age of wonder, and this book wonderfully and masterfully brings the period back to life. Unlike most books on romantic history (which often examine the artistic and literary movements), biographer Richard Holmes focuses on the public and private lives of major scientists like William Herschel and Humphry Davy. But instead of portraying individual stories, he weaves them all into a bigger narrative, allowing the re...more
This book is science, social history, history, biography, and adventure narrative all in one. It's a wonderful account of the time between Joseph Banks's expedition to Tahiti and Darwin's expedition to the Galapagos Islands. Holmes rightly dubs this time period "The Age of Wonder," claiming that the Romantic generation brought their ideas of the sublime to their studies in science, changing the scope of the discipline itself and its application to everyday life and the benefit of humanity.
I thor...more
Heard it as an audiobook during rides in my car. I would find myself sitting in my parked car after a car ride to simply keep on listening to the story.

This incredible book about the people who pioneered the scientific inventions of Britain between the time of Newton and Darwin is much more than a simple book about science. It covers people whose names sounded vaguely familiar to me, like Sir Humphry Davy and William Herschel, to complete strangers like Sir Joseph Banks and Mungo Park. What I a...more
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Biographer Richard Holmes was born in London, England on 5 November 1945 and educated at Downside School and Churchill College, Cambridge. His first book, Shelley:The Pursuit, was published in 1974 and won a Somerset Maugham Award. The first volume of his biography of the po...more
More about Richard Holmes...
Coleridge: Early Visions, 1772-1804 Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air Shelley: The Pursuit Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804-1834

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“Physical vision - one might say scientific vision - brings about a metaphysical shift in the observer's view of reality as a whole. The geography of the earth, or the structure of the solar system, are in an instant utterly changed, and forever. The explorer, the scientific observer, the literary reader, experience the Sublime: a moment of revelation into the idea of the unbounded, the infinite.” 3 likes
“The celebrated Parisian doctor Professor Xavier Bichat developed a fully materialist theory of the human body and mind in his lectures Physiological Researches on Life and Death, translated into English in 1816. Bichat defined life bleakly as ‘the sum of the functions by which death is resisted” 2 likes
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