The Wilson Quarterly

Biographer Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder is one of those books that starts to look like essential background reading for just about everything: kids’ movies about mad explorers and balloonists, novels deconstructing the Frankenstein story, a trip to the dentist. Holmes describes the birth of professional science in England in the late 1700s and early 1800s, when explorers, astronomers, balloonists, and chemists cemented their art into an occupation. It’s also, of course, the period during which Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote poems and novels that confronted and in some cases even anticipated the scientific leaps occurring all around them. Holmes argues that the scientists and the poets of this period were motivated by the same rampant curiosity about the world, the same exhilarated sense that the ceiling of what was known had been torn off and a whole new universe beckoned.

Holmes’s book, which often reads like a Balzac novel, is organized in a series of mini-biographies over successive generations. He begins with Joseph Banks (b. 1743), who became an avuncular figure to most of the important scientists of his time. (Holmes calls him a “scientific Virgil.”) But in 1768, when he set forth from Plymouth with Captain James Cook aboard the Endeavour, Banks was just an adventurous young ship’s botanist at the beginning of his career, independently wealthy and possessed of an urgent need to explore. The Endeavour’s encounter with the natives of Tahiti must be one of the great moments in the history of social awkwardness, as Banks—in all forthrightness—grappled with Tahitian cultural and sexual mores. Holmes’s telling makes clear how fundamental the meeting was, as it shaped Western ideas of the noble savage and the adventurer-discoverer for centuries to come.

Banks’s ecumenical, energetic spirit dominated British science for the next 50 years, especially after he ascended to the Royal Society presidency, a position he kept until his death in 1820. He convinced King George III to bankroll William Herschel, the astronomer who discovered Uranus and helped change our sense of the universe from a fixed landscape of stars to a volatile and doomed galaxy. In the sections on Herschel, Holmes’s interest is—understandably—diverted by the astronomer’s sister and closest assistant, Caroline, one of the most complex characters in the book and the author of extensive, often rancorous diaries and many Was there ever a woman without vanity? . . . Or a man either? Only with this difference, that among gentlemen the commodity is generally styled ambition.” Caroline Herschel became a respected astronomer in her own right, partially through a specific fund for her that Banks coaxed out of the king, making her the first professional female scientist in Britain.

Of Banks’s many other protégés, Humphry Davy (1778–1829) stands out as a huge personality, flawed but brilliant. Davy began his scientific life as an experimenter with nitrous oxide. (Most scientists of the time experimented on themselves, with sometimes horrific results: Michael Faraday had a glass tube explode into his eyes while working on chlorine crystals.) But Davy’s real accomplishments included lectures that redefined the role of science. “It has bestowed on [man] powers which may almost be called creative; which have enabled him to modify and change the beings surrounding him, and by his experiments to interrogate nature with power, not simply as a scholar . . . but rather as a master, active with his own instruments,” Davy declared in 1802. Science was about the scientist, the genius, making his mark on a chaotic and misunderstood world; it’s no wonder Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (the doctor, not the monster) resonated so widely in theatrical productions in the 1820s.

One finishes this book feeling that Banks and Davy would have been proud. With a generosity similar to theirs, Holmes has offered up a collection of curious specimens, earlier permutations of debates, paradigms, and characters that absorb us today. It may not be possible to understand the apparent irreconcilability of modern science and religion or the archetype of the mad scientist without also understanding the people and the controversies Holmes elucidates so beautifully here.

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Britt Peterson is deputy managing editor of Foreign Policy

Reviewed: "The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science" by Richard Holmes, Pantheon, 2009. 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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