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The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes

Richard Holmes

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On March 14, 2012
Last modified:September 29, 2012


The Age of Wonder is an aptly named chronicle of enlightenment era scientific discovery, when natural philosophers, rather than scientists, dominated the study of nature.

The Age of WonderThe Age of Wonder is part biography and part history with a few subtle observations by the book’s author slipped in here and there.  The Age of Wonder covers the age of scientific discovery at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century in England.  It begins with the story of Joseph Banks.  Fans of Patrick O’Brian will recognize the name, as he is often mentioned, but never appears in O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series.  Banks was the head of the Royal Academy, an upper crust club consisting of luminaries, many of whom were selected by Banks.  Before ascending to the leadership of that august body, Banks made a voyage to Tahiti with the famous Captain Cook, where he enjoyed a semi-scandalous libertine existence.

Upon returning to England, he settled down, got married, and eventually assumed leadership of the Royal Academy.  O’Brian fans will be familiar with some of his endeavors, like his herd of sheep and his interests in botany.  Banks is rightfully the core of the book, as he was the core of British natural philosophy during his 41 year tenure as president of the Royal Academy.  During his long tenure, Banks recruited and patronized many men of science in various disciplines.

The Age of Wonder seeks to capture a sense of the excitement which attended the many scientific discoveries that happened in this time period.  The term scientist was coined near the end of Banks’ life, and was indicative of a more clinical and less romantic version of science than was the norm during most of Banks’ lifetime.  Banks and his contemporaries were known as “natural philosophers” rather than scientists.  It’s no accident that Patrick O’Brian’s fictional Maturin fits this mold so well.  In fact O’Brian wrote a biography of Banks which is referenced in The Age of Wonder.

Holmes delves into this romantic aspect, as much as does the scientific discoveries.  Holmes’ chronicle consists of a handful of  biographical sketches of the natural philosophers who were recruited by Banks.  These men (and a few women) specialized in various branches of science, but Banks sought to tie their interests together.  They were men like William Herschel, who began life as a talented musician who emigrated from Germany to England and supported himself by teaching music during the day, and built and used telescopes at night.  He didn’t sleep much.

Because of Banks’ patronage and connections to the king, Herschel was eventually able to support himself as an astronomer.  He built huge telescopes, and figured out how to polish immense mirrors for use in ever larger instruments.  His devoted sister Caroline, helped with his exploration of the stars and gained renown in her own right, as a discoverer of comets.  Herschel was eventually knighted for his accomplishments.

The Safety Lamp (from Wikipedia)Sir Humphry Davy was another genius of humble origins.  Davy’s passion was chemistry.  Initially, Davy spent a great deal of time exploring the effects of nitrous oxide, embarking on hallucinatory journeys, experimenting on himself.  Once satisfied there was no more to learn from laughing gas, he explored other elements, discovering some and working out practical applications for his work.  The safety lamp was perhaps his most famous invention.  During Davy’s lifetime there were several major catastrophic explosions in coal mines due to the ignition of methane gas by miner-lamps.   A lot of miners were killed. The government approached Davy and asked him to find a solution to the problem.

Davy, assisted by Faraday, figured out that by enclosing an open flame within an iron mesh, the gas would not ignite, even at high density.  Davy refused to patent the lamp in a magnanimous gesture, which was similar in vein to Franklin’s refusal to patent his stove, lightening rod, or other inventions.  Davy also discovered a means of preventing corrosion and weed growth on copper bottomed ships.  He eventually succeeded Banks as president of the Royal Academy.  Davy’s romanticism is exemplified by his interest in poetry and literature.  He wrote and published much and always maintained an interest in philosophy, seeking to explain and give meaning to the things he learned about.  He concluded his life by publishing a romantic philosophical treatise, exploring the nature of life and the possibility of an afterlife based on enlightenment and energy.

Holmes examines this duality in all of his subjects and devotes a fair about of the book to the relationship between art and science.  Particularly interesting was his investigation into the writing of  the novel, Frankenstein.  He shows how the book was derived and inspired by ‘galvanic’ experimentation.  Some natural philosophers, like Davy, pondered on the nature of electricity and even speculated on the nature of the brain and the possibility of its being powered by electrical impulses.  Others sought to re-animate animals, and even cadavers, by applying electricity.

The Age of Wonder draws to a conclusion with the death of Banks and advent of a new class of “scientists,” which included John Herschel – son of William Herschel, Charles Babbage, Michael Faraday, and Charles Darwin (grandson of Banks’ contemporary philosopher poet, Erasmus Darwin.)   These men sought to distance themselves from the romantic aspects of science and were not afraid to extend the heretical surmises of their predecessors.  Where men like Herschel and Davy were initially reluctant to raise certain questions about the nature of man and God, these men were quick to provide “answers”, and eager to leave the old romanticism behind.

Holmes’ book is reminiscent a little of Paul Johnson’s Modern Times.  The Age of Wonder was marked by the effect that scientific discovery had on poetry and art.  At the beginning of Modern Times, Johnson shows how the theory of relativity was applied to everything from morals to  psychiatry – giving rise to disparate concepts like moral relativity and quantum physics.

The Age of Wonder was an interesting time of discovery and makes for an interesting book.


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