Tuesday, April 6, 2010
The Age Of Wonder
I don’t often read non fiction. All too often non fiction books make even an interesting subject sound dry and boring. The marvelous picture of the Montgolfier balloon on the cover was what caught my eye. Having a browse through the contents of the book reminded me of Bill Bryson’s wonderful A Short History of Nearly Everything, which I would recommend to anyone no matter what their interests were.
Author Richard Holmes is a well known biographer and The Age of Wonder is essentially a series of short biographies of some of the best known British scientists of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, a period that Holmes refers to as The Age of Wonder and has been dubbed Romantic science.
In biographing his subjects Holmes also tells the story of the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge or as it is better known simply the Royal Society. Holmes chooses prominent members of the Royal Society; its driving force and president for over 40 years Joseph Banks, William Herschel, Humphry Davy and others.
In the way the book has been written it is almost like a novel, the main characters being the energetic visionary, botanist Joseph Banks, the astronomers, the reserved and driven William Herschel and his formidable and underrated sister; Caroline, the erratic, creative and imaginative inventor with a longing to be a poet; Humphry Davy and the heroic, but tragic African explorer Mungo Parks. There is a large supporting cast of fascinating figures that come and go. To complete the romantic conceit they are mostly poets of the day, Byron, Coleridge, Percy Shelley and his wife Mary; the author of the science fiction classic: Frankenstein, the plucky novelist; Fanny Burney. There are also the daring and flamboyant balloonists: Lunardi, Pilatre de Rozier and the Englishman James Sadler.
The book covers what seems to be the golden days of the Royal Society under the stewardship of the indefatigable Banks, who was always looking for new discoveries in all fields of science and exploration. With Banks’ passing and the less than reliable publicity seeker Davy taking over the Royal Society, and a new breed of more mechanical scientist coming to public attention the Romantic age of science came to a close, but it had paved the way for a world of discovery.
Holmes seemed to idolise Davy to an extent and gave him 2 chapters that could have easily been condensed into one. Richard Holmes is a literary critic and his love of using poetry at times spoils the narrative feel. At times I felt he was using it to make comparisons between science and art that simply wasn’t there, in order to underline the romantic connection.
Overall it was a really well written account of an exciting time in human development about a romantic age, the research was meticulous and for the most part the subjects interesting, it also contained a number of interesting facts and served to remind me that truth is often stranger than fiction.