“The Age of Wonder” by Richard Holmes

FOR one brief moment, dear reader, we found something to take our minds off The Controversy between evolution and creationism. In the Philadelphia Inquirer we read: Exploring a time when poetry and science mingled. Here are some excerpts, with bold added by us:

Future chroniclers might well classify today’s science as a product of the Age of Cynicism. From climate science to evolution, from stem cells to genetically modified foods, political ideology and religious belief often lead some to distort the very essence of science by denying data, or branding theories as talking points from the “other side of the aisle.”

Certainly, no one is making a living writing poetry about it.

True. But many a charlatan is making a living by stirring up the cynicism. Let’s read on:

It wasn’t always this way. In his groundbreaking The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, Richard Holmes re-creates a time when scientists and poets took inspiration from each other, and, in the process, revealed new ways to understand and describe the world opening up before them.

Here’s a link to the book at Amazon: The Age of Wonder. This is from the Publishers Weekly review at the Amazon site:

Holmes’s treatment is sketchy on the actual science and heavy on the cultural impact, with wide-ranging discussions of the 1780s ballooning craze, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and scientific metaphors in Romantic poetry. It’s an engrossing portrait of scientists as passionate adventurers, boldly laying claim to the intellectual leadership of society.

Back to the Philadelphia Inquirer:

The late-18th-early-19th-century era of Romantic Science marks the beginning of public science. In Britain, this development can be credited to Joseph Banks – explorer, president of the Royal Society, and a man adept at using his political and societal connections to raise large sums of money. Under his leadership, the society funded a wide range of scientific studies that led to stunning breakthroughs by William Herschel in astronomy, Humphry Davy in chemistry, and many others.

Past presidents of the Royal Society, including Isaac Newton, had kept science for themselves and the ruling class. Banks helped bring science to the masses by establishing the Bakerian Lecture, a prize lecture that still exists. These open lectures soon became the hottest ticket in London. With their talks carefully prepared and theatrically delivered, the scientists quickly became famous and, in Holmes’ telling, Romantic heroes.

It’s difficult now to even imagine that there ever was an era of romantic science. We continue:

This status was enhanced by the Romantic poets – Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge, Keats, and Byron – frequent audience members who often incorporated the ideas and images of science into their own work. For example, Keats’ reaction to Chapman’s Homer demanded an astronomical reference:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken. . . .

The new planet is Uranus, discovered by Herschel in 1781. For Holmes, Herschel “fits the stereotype that first began entering the public consciousness in these days: a solitary scientific genius, thirsting and reckless for knowledge, for its own sake and perhaps at any cost.” After building the world’s best telescope in his backyard, Herschel sat hunched, squinting into an eyepiece, for decades, mapping the heavens.

It’s good to be reminded that things were different once. Here’s our last excerpt:

Holmes does not skirt the controversies generated by the new scientific discoveries. Remarkably, they are similar to our own. When combined with the inevitable aversion to change, a creeping anti-science movement is a necessary byproduct.

Perhaps so. Anyway, click over to the Philadelphia Inquirer and read the rest of their review. Then visit the Amazon site and read some of the reviews there. After that, who knows? Maybe you’ll buy the book.

Anyway, it’s good to be reminded of a time when those who expanded mankind’s knowledge weren’t the victims of a guild of ignorant gnomes who make a scavenger’s living by scorning their betters.

Copyright © 2009. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

add to del.icio.usAdd to Blinkslistadd to furlDigg itadd to ma.gnoliaStumble It!add to simpyseed the vineTailRankpost to facebook

. AddThis Social Bookmark Button . Permalink for this article

5 responses to ““The Age of Wonder” by Richard Holmes

  1. Science of Cynicism? Really? Last I checked, science was working on ways to improve human life. Renewable energy, cures for diseases, etc. Creationists seem to be stuck in some idealized past and desperate for the world to end so all the people they hate will go away. So, wouldn’t a better term be the Science of Realism?

  2. Albanaeon says: “Science of Cynicism? Really?”

    No, not really. The article said “Age of Cynicism.”

  3. Oops. Critical reading FAIL. Maybe I’ve been spending a little too much time online debating idiots who thinking science is the cause of all evil on their lightning fast computers on an ever growing inter-connected resource of information in their climate controlled evironments, probably snacking on products of modern agriculture.

  4. Damn, I thought is was John.