The age of wonder: How the romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science. Richard Holmes 2008. Pantheon Books, New York.
This is a different direction for me. Biography is outside my normal reading and as such a possibility and learning something new.
Richard Holmes has made of life writing biography, with a particular focus on the romantic poets and era. That brought him into the area of science and scientists of that time; beginning with Joseph Banks and concluding with Humphry Davy. The period’s discoveries included: Cook’s voyages of discovery, the discovery of new comets, planets, galaxies, laughing gas, human flight in balloons, the gas laws and invention of the safety lamp.
Socially and politically, English society was at the forefront of science and the enlightenment’s expansion. This was underpinned by social and cultural progress but not all positive. Early on, Richard describes the fate of early feminists, marginalised and rejected by those in power, to suffer poverty and early death. And, of course, this was the time of Mary Shelly author of Frankenstein. A fear of consequences still relevant and central to policymaking today. And, I’m disturbed by the influence Banks had on the careers and lives of so many as President of the Royal Society, picking favour and disfavour.
As a story of science and scientists this book is fascinating. How discoveries were made against the backdrop of the times and the stories of the friendships and marriages of the subjects. And a sense of time passing.
For me, the most poignant thing was the way the Royal Society was developed by the passion and persistence of men; particularly, Banks; for better and worst. And how things I think obvious: the periodic table and anaesthetics, for example, were struggled with. I was particularly struck when the use of nitrous oxide as an anaesthetic was missed by the early chemists, and of the descriptions of child birth and surgery without pain relief. We take so much as normal that was developed in this period.
That brings me to one final point; the way institutions we take for granted, struggled in their early years and the way they can fail.
I think reading biography is useful and fascinating. I recommend this book.