book review: the age of wonder

One of my best friends, who is a historian not a scientist, gave me Richard Holmes’ book The Age of Wonder for being an unofficial bridesmaid at her wedding last summer. It took a while for it to follow me to my new home and longer for me to read, but I loved it. Thanks.

The book is about the development of science at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th. This is the time of Romanticism, between Newton and Darwin. When ballomania was taking hold of Europe and chemistry was emerging from alchemy’s shadow. I didn’t know much about this time, and after reading this book I feel like that’s a bit of a shame. We don’t really learn the history of science, or the personalities involved. Holmes talks a bit about the problems that brings in his epilogue:

The old, rigid debates and boundaries – science versus religion, science versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics – are no longer enough. We should be impatient with them. We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective. Above all, perhaps, we need the three things that a scientific culture can sustain: the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe. 

He did a great job of making the stories of all of this accessible and fascinating, showing the personalities involved without too much judgment, and championing the neglected people, like astronomer William Herschel’s poor sister Caroline who was his assistant for decades, discovered a pile of comets, and eventually retired back to Germany where she corresponded with her nephew while he mapped out the skies of the southern hemisphere.

It was all a time of adventure and discovery. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, based on these scientists she’d met and Mungo Park went to Africa looking for Timbuktoo twice (he didn’t come back the second time). I don’t know, I kind of loved this book. It reminded me a lot of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle (consisting of Quicksilver, The System of the World and The Confusion) which was similarly about science and exploration and the adventure of it all, but set a generation or two earlier.

Finally, my girlfriend enjoys falling asleep to my retelling of these tales of safety lamps and stargazing which seems like it might be important some day.

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