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How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

A-The Age of WonderRichard Holmes is the award-winning author of biographies of Samuel Coleridge and Percy Bysse Shelley.

The Topic: Starting with botanist Joseph Banks's 1769 arrival in Tahiti and ending with Charles Darwin's trip to the Galapagos in 1831, The Age of Wonder offers a group portrait of British scientists in an era-the late 18th and early 19th centuries-that Holmes claims was dominated not only by a Romantic imagination, but also major scientific advances and the quest for knowledge. Among others, he focuses on astronomer William Herschel, who discovered Uranus and the finite life of the Milky Way, and his assistant-sister Caroline; chemist and poet Humphry Davy, who experimented with laughing gas; explorer Mungo Park; and the impacts of ballooning, Romantic poetry, and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein on the world's life forces. In the end, these scientists' discoveries established the view of the universe as one of "dynamic science" and unprecedented wonder.
Pantheon. 552 pages. $40. ISBN: 9780375422225

Guardian (UK) 4.5 of 5 Stars
"You've heard of slow food? This is slow biography, and all the richer and more nourishing for the painstaking preparation. ... This is a rich, crowded book, with something luminous, provoking and instructive on every page." Tim Radford

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Holmes's excitement at fusing long-familiar events and personages into something startlingly new is not unlike the exuberance of the age that animates his groundbreaking book. ... By the time the book reaches the Age of Wonder's concluding event, Charles Darwin's five-year voyage on the Beagle beginning in 1831, it has raised both the antecedents and ramifications of today's most enduring scientific debates, on subjects from global warming to extraterrestrial life to intelligent design." Janet Maslin

Onion AV Club 4 of 5 Stars
"Holmes deftly juggles juicy biography and concrete science, but his aim is larger. Unsurprisingly, Holmes is excellent at close-reading the scientists' intellectual traces in everything from Keats to Frankenstein, or better yet, finding Romantic tropes and phrases in the science." Vadim Rizov

Slate 4 of 5 Stars
"The Age of Wonder places more faith in science's 'beauty' than in its 'terror.' ... [But there] is a reason that Herschel and Davy, heroes in their own time, have been overshadowed by the eminent contemporary whose name everyone still knows, Frankenstein." Adam Kirsch

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Holmes perhaps overstates the discontinuity between 'Romantic science' and what came before and after, but he is right to stress the novel tone that insinuated itself into the project of science at the end of the 18th century. ... [Frankenstein's] dramatization of the horrifying effects of scientific hubris reminds us that Mr. Holmes is right to underscore the 'ambiguous' legacy of the science he celebrates so eloquently." Roger Kimball

Critical Summary

Critics described Age of Wonder, a synthesis of history, science, philosophy, and biography, as "intoxicating," "gripping," and "juicy." Rather than a dry account of scientific advances, the book offers lively, compelling portraits of the men and women who made discoveries whose legacies resound today. Holmes paints both the big picture of such discoveries and the smaller details that engaged reviewers, from the scientists' intellectual backgrounds to their personal relationships. Despite Holmes's unbridled enthusiasm for the beauty rather than the terror behind the science, he doesn't neglect to discuss scientists' challenges, confusions, and failures-as well as the questions they raised about religion, spirituality, mortality, and the future of the universe. Far more than a heavy scientific tome, Age of Wonder is a timely, fascinating guide to many of today's lingering controversies.