Book Review: The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes

I came across a description of this book while I was cruising lists on the internet looking for interesting reading material. At this particular time I was searching for nonfiction, and this appeared on a few lists of worthwhile history books. The descriptions sounded intriguing, and check out that subtitle. What could go wrong, right?

The impression I got was that it was a blend of biographical accounts of scientists, explorers, and writers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, although Coleridge, Wordsworth, and other literary luminaries are touched on in passing, the book mainly covers the careers of a few major scientists, with a few sensational accounts of explorers and adventurers to spice it up.

It starts off with a bang with a long, detailed account of Joseph Banks and his voyage to Tahiti with Captain Cook. Banks was the ship’s botanist, but he also had an affinity with the Tahitians that allowed him to interact with the locals in a way that most of the ship’s crew members were unable to do. This was the one major expedition that Banks went on; afterwards he settled into leadership of the British Royal Society and acted as a mentor and cheerleader to other up-and-coming scientists and explorers.

Next Holmes tells the story of William Herschel and his sister Catherine, extraordinary immigrants from Germany who revolutionized the study of astronomy. This story too is fast-paced and fascinating.

Holmes then goes into an interlude in which he traces the development of hot air balloons in England and mainland Europe. It’s fun, if light compared with the in-depth biographies that have preceded it. After this, he is back to the story of the Herschels as William discovers the planet Uranus and maps the heavens while Catherine becomes an acclaimed comet hunter.

Another interlude follows in which Holmes traces the two expeditions of Mungo Park as he explores the reaches of the Niger River in West Africa. Park was not so much a scientist as a pure explorer with a desire to go to places where no Europeans had ever been before. He disappeared somewhere along the Niger River during his second expedition to Africa, and his body was never found. Tragically, his son Thomas went into Africa to search for Mungo, but he died shortly after beginning his quest.

The next major player in the book is Humphry Davy, who rises from humble origins on the Cornish Coast to become a celebrated chemist. The first chapter on Davy focuses on his experiments with nitrous oxide, or laughing gas. For a time Davy became addicted to the gas, and offered it in a party-like atmosphere to many celebrities such as Coleridge.

The next interlude focuses on medical experiments during this era and culminates with an account of the writing of the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. After that comes another chapter on Davy in which he invents a safe lamp for coal miners to use; this revolutionizes the industry and saves scores of miners from violent deaths caused by underground explosions.

Everything that I have described so far makes for terrific reading and comprises most of the book. However, in the last few chapters the book kind of winds down and loses its momentum. In wrapping up the story of these great men Holmes goes into too much detail about trivia, at least in my opinion. He goes on for page after page describing scientific papers they write, and he even includes one mediocre poem after another. Davy may have been a brilliant scientist, but he was not an exceptional poet, and some of the poems that Holmes elects to reprint would have been better off forgotten. This applying of the brakes after so much adventure, both intellectual and physical, earlier in the book changes the tone and pace and made it difficult for me to finish it. Too bad. Apart from the last two hundred pages or so, it’s a great read and I recommend it.

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