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

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  8,370 ratings  ·  818 reviews

When Joseph Banks stepped onto a Tahitian beach in 1796, he hoped to discover Paradise. The young botanist had set sail in search of new worlds – inspired by the Romantic revolution of science that was sweeping through Britain.

In this ground-breaking group biography, award-winning author Richard Holmes charts the voyages of discovery – astronomical, chemical, poetical, phi

Paperback, 1st pbk edition, 554 pages
Published September 3rd 2009 by HarperPress (first published October 1st 2008)
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 ·  8,370 ratings  ·  818 reviews

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Will Byrnes
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 Herschel, an astronomer who with his sister, Car ...more
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
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
Oct 22, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
Holmes profiles prominent British scientists of the Romantic Era - botanist Joseph Banks, astronomer William Herschel and chemist Humphrey Davy. We meet their friends and acquaintances including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy and Mary Shelly, James Watt, Michael Faraday and many more. Holmes focuses on their cultural impact. He shows how new ideas such as deep time, deep space, a universe in motion, invisible wavelengths of light, and electricity from chemicals influenced the writings of Erasmus ...more

Description: 'The Age of Wonder' is Richard Holmes' first major work of biography for a decade. It has been inspired by the scientific ferment that swept through Britain at the end of the 18th century, and which Holmes now radically redefines as 'the revolution of Romantic Science'.

Never has a book left me feeling so completely inadequate, however it is highly probable that I am not alone in this sentiment. So whilst none of the information could be deemed as original, this book is put together
Jul 09, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites, 2009
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

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
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
Apr 25, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
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
Feb 22, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  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
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
Feb 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I read this book a while ago and didn't take notes or write a review immediately following. That was a mistake because it would have been hard even then to do this book justice. The following will not be the review this book deserves, but it's better than nothing.

Holmes has written a truly exceptional book. It's been on my list for quite some time, but I never seemed to get around to reading it. Had I known how exquisite and often lesser known a science history it would turn out to be, I would
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
Jan 21, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a good introduction to many of the famous figures in this book. If you are unfamiliar with many of the people mentioned this will give you a taste of their lives and maybe prompt you to read more about them.

This is my only caveat of the book. There was only a slight mention of Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron's daughter and innovator of modern computer language. This was in an appendix in the back giving a short blurb about Mary Somerville. And I mention this because there was plenty written ab
Kirsten #EndGunViolence
This is an incredibly well written, thorough, and engaging work. It demonstrates a time when scientists weren't ridiculed, but respected. Not vilified, but lionized. (A time I wish we could go back to.) Many of these scientists were self taught (and some made some seriously ill-advised decisions). It wasn't just an age of wonder but a wonderful age!

Cannot recommend this book enough!
Apr 29, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2019

read for class - boring, kinda sexist, not worth the trudging read
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
Oct 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 ma
Sep 05, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Ben Babcock
No matter how you slice it, the way we do science now is very different from the way we did science a few centuries ago, or even a single century ago. Or even a couple of decades ago. Just as the concept of science, itself a fairly recent term, has changed dramatically over the centuries, so too has the scientific method and the infrastructure through which we do science. Richard Holmes elects to analyze a significant era in the history of science, namely the late eighteenth and early nineteenth ...more
Nov 26, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jun 09, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2016-re-read
This book is a fascinating voyage back to the Romantic Age in Europe when there were still far flung parts of the globe to explore, most of the chemical elements awaited discovery, and time and space were found to be much vaster than anyone had expected. Even more wonderfully, scientists and artists were not naturally at odds—chemist Humphry Davy and poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge were friends, Percy Bysshe Shelley attended science lectures at the Royal Society and a musician, William Herschel, be ...more
Feb 10, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
List of illustrations

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

Cast List
Nov 05, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is as the title suggests a collection of chapters related to the Age of Wonder or discovery in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the U.K. There is a good deal of arbitrariness in this definition but most of the chapters tangentially relate to the scientist Joseph Banks who, after his endeavor expedition with Captain James Cook, became the President of the Royal Society and controlled a lot of funding and promotion of science and exploration.

The chapters on Joseph Banks, Hersch
Oct 12, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The iPhone is a wondrous thing. People rave about it, but would anyone consider writing a poem about it? That's very unlikely. Poetry still exists, but it has been almost entirely subsumed into musical lyrics given to us by the relative few who write the songs we hear. Lyrics can speak to the heart but they do not come from one's own heart. The Age of Wonder continually cites poetry as it was a natural way for people of the time to question and address feeling toward an exciting, but bewildering ...more
Marguerite Kaye
Sep 05, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The late 18th and early 19th Centuries saw science change our understanding of the world - the universe - we inhabit at a fundamental level. The Herschells mapped the stars, discovered new plaets and comets, and proved that our galaxy is just one of millions. Humphrey Davy discovered new elements and introduced us to the beginnings of electricity. Anatomists studied circulation, and wondered what particular form of electricity animated the human body - and the human soul. Balloonists conquered t ...more
Jul 18, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Surazeus Astarius
I am writing an epic poem about scientists, a series of biographies about the lives of philosophers and scientists who contributed to the development of civilization and science. I started writing Hermead over a year before I read this book, but its concept of exploring scientific ideas within the context of the life of the scientist is precisely the idea that inspired me to start writing my epic.

So far I have written 55,000 lines of blank verse about 22 Greek philosophers. Books like this are
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.
Jul 05, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 5-star, 2010
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
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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
“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.” 6 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” 4 likes
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