National Book Critics Circle Award, Nonfiction, 2010
The Age of Wonder is a colorful and utterly absorbing 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 in search of new worlds. Other voyages of discovery—astronomical, chemical, poetical, philosophical—swiftly follow in Richard Holmes's thrilling evocation of the second scientific revolution. Through the lives of William Herschel and his sister Caroline, who forever changed the public conception of the solar system; of Humphry Davy, whose near-suicidal gas experiments revolutionized chemistry; and of the great Romantic writers, from Mary Shelley to Coleridge and Keats, who were inspired by the scientific breakthroughs of their day, Holmes brings to life the era in which we first realized both the awe-inspiring and the frightening possibilities of science—an era whose consequences are with us still.
©2008 Richard Holmes (P)2011 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
“Richard Holmes—who is almost unfairly gifted both as a writer of living, luminous prose and as a tireless researcher—braids Herschel’s story together with a dozen others to create the most joyful, exciting book of the year.” (Time, The Top 10 Everything of 2009)
On Audible since the late 1990s, mostly science fiction, fantasy, history & science. I rarely review 1-2 star books that I can't get through
This is, in essence, a very detailed history of science in the period between Newton and the dawn of modern science in the mid-1800s, with a particular focus on excitement of discovery and the lives of a few scientists. The book opens with Captain Cook's trip to Tahiti, and then swings through the discovery of Uranus, the birth of air travel (by balloon), and the rapid evolution of chemistry, among other topics. The biographies are quite detailed, covering the work, personal, and professional lives of the scientists involved. To that end, I would agree with the other reviewer - the title is misleading to the extent that the classic Romantics (Byron, Keats, Shelly, etc.) are covered only in passing, and art and literature is not the clear focus.
On the other hand, this book covers a fascinating period in science, one that is rarely written about, since it is less sexy than either the time of Newton or the birth of modern physics. In the stories in this book, you can see how science transitions from a period of pure discovery to an attempt to follow a scientific method. And this is told through engaging stories of life in Tahiti, the early experiments with electricity by genuine mad scientists, and the early days of flight (the President of the Royal Society's first thought when he heard about balloons was to tie them to carriages in order to make the load lighter for horses!) Additionally, for someone like me who doesn't usually like biographies, I found the coverage of the lives of the scientists compelling and the storytelling to be top notch.
A couple of things weigh the experience down. First, the book is a bit long, but there is a lot to keep you listening, though the detail does pile up. Also, the reader is mostly average, except when he tries to do American accents, which is outside his range.
Overall, though, if you like the history of science and want something different, or you are interested in the late 18th/early 19th century, this is a really great listen. For others, it may be a less compelling subject, but it is well written and full of new information.
I had greatly anticipated the release of this book, believing that it would explore how the growing field of scientific inquiry influenced the development of Romantic thought as expressed in politics, literature, philosophy, art and music in the first half of the 19th century.The title seems to suggest an exploration of the question of how science plays into the culture of a period--a question of ever increasing relevance to subsequent generations.
The book should instead be titled something like, "The History of Science in England from the mid-18th Century through the early 19th century." The lives and work of 8-10 "scientists" (the term being something of an anachronism for the period) working in England are described in excruciating detail--great for someone interested in the history of science, I suppose, but very tedious for someone interested in the the culture as a whole. Literature of the period is only passingly referenced with the exception of Coleridge (Holmes' special area of interest, I believe) and Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein," the latter treatment being, by far, the best part of the book in my opinion. Authors whose connection to the science of the age is less clear or who rebelled against rationalism altogether, such as William Blake, are generally ignored. The impact of the new science on religion and politics are occasionally referenced but there is essentially no discussion of philosophy, the arts or of anything that takes place outside of England unless it is a direct precursor to the main topic of discussion--which occurs in England, of course.
Even if one accepts Holmes' limited use of the term "romantic" as limited to romanticism in science (a limitation which is not at all clear from the "Romantic Generation" of the title), his exposition of the transition from Enlightenment principles of rationalism and universality to Romantic thought is obscured by the sheer weight of prosaic factual detail--honestly, the last thing I felt was "wonder."
I loved learning about all the amazing scientific figures especially William Herschel and Humphry Davy. Also the section on the advent of balloon flight. The book features mini-biographies that are woven together seamlessly. It's sprinkled with fun anecdotes and details throughout.
The one suggestion would be to get through the first section on Joseph Banks. It's more about geographic exploration and less about science- it's the least interesting part of the book- which gets much better afterwards.
The narration by Gildart Jackson is sublime. He handles all the French, German, Latin, scientific terms and even gives distinct accents to all spoken characters. He gives Davy what I assume is a Cornish accent. His American accent is charming if not perfectly accurate. He's a terrific reader.
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