The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

Susan Eilenberg writes:

Holmes is as interested in who his subjects were, and what it felt like to be who they were and do what they did, as he is in what they did. He is interested even when the feeling had apparently nothing to do with the doing. ‘You were silly like us,’ Holmes seems almost to murmur. Banks, the Herschels, Park and Davy would surely have been figures of interest to us even had they not gone to Tahiti or found Uranus or travelled to Timbuktu or discovered iodine. Their wonder, extravagantly and voraciously and inconveniently and foolishly and sometimes dangerously pursued, called forth wonders, or occasionally their simulacra. Sometimes they discovered the emptiness of these illusions themselves, as when, watching Uranus as it receded from his eye, before he knew what it was, William Herschel saw it grow – thrillingly! – larger before his telescopic gaze. This impossible aspect of approach, Holmes surmises, was ‘the product of his growing concentration and excitement’.

(LRB 7 January 2010)

Richard Holmes, biographer of Coleridge and Shelley, describes the scientific revolution that accompanied the Romantic Movement in Britain. His account begins with Joseph Banks, botanist on Captain Cook’s Endeavour, setting foot on Tahiti for the first time in 1769. The following decades saw Banks, as president of the Royal Society, presiding over a culture of restless invention and research whose discoveries laid the foundations for modern science.

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