In 1769, a young Englishman named Joseph Banks arrived on the island of Tahiti, serving as the official botanist of the HMS Endeavour under the command of Lt. James Cook. Banks was wealthy—he had entirely funded his presence on the ship himself, along with several assistants and their equipment—as well as highly intelligent, well educated and enormously curious. He was, in a single person, the embodiment of a rising new breed of “natural philosopher,” the gentleman of science, out to study nature in intimate detail, not only by thinking about it but by experiencing it.
Botanist he may have officially been, but Banks’ study went far further, into the nature of the island and the culture of its people, collecting thousands of specimens ranging from plants to Polynesian clothing and tools. He was welcomed back to England as a celebrity, becoming a friend and advisor to King George III, and the rising star of science. Banks was, author Richard Holmes suggests, a Romantic hero, the first of many who would change Europe’s perception of science, nature and the very universe—a change historian Richard Holmes calls “the Age of Wonder,” the title of his latest book.
The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science is Holmes’ study of that change in perceptions, which sent ripples across everything from literature to industry to religion. It was a change firmly rooted in startling discoveries in science that rapidly began to appear, guided by a change from science as a mental exercise of philosophy to active experimentation and observation. It was also a change that cut through the social layers which had largely relegated scientific philosophy to the wealthy gentility, to the point that the greatest astronomer of the age would turn out to be an immigrant German musician (William Herschel), the greatest chemist was the son of a Welsh ne’er-do-well (Humphry Davy), and a whole new branch of study—electromagnetism—would be founded by the son of a blacksmith (Michael Faraday). All these figures appear as characters in Holmes’ fascinating work, along with poets, novelists, explorers, aristocrats and even balloonists.
Holmes shares how the new developments in astronomy, chemistry and the new science of geology spurred popular fascination with science, both its possibilities for good and abuse, with the language, ideas and ethics of science and scientists appearing in poems by Coleridge, Keats, Byron and Shelley and, on the darker side, novels such as Mary Shelley’s classic tale of science gone wrong, Frankenstein.
Like the polymath intellectuals of the times, The Age of Wonder reaches across multiple themes and disciplines, combining biography with the history of science, literature and even social change. Holmes’ biographical accounts carry the reader through the book, each figure serving as a new torchbearer in the progression of science in the age—and each figure also bringing new questions as that same science slowly reveals a universe far vaster and stranger than the easily defined world of the old philosophy. The Age of Wonder is a book about discovery, both exciting and frightening—discovery that removes surety as much as it offers hope. To read it is to read the opening of the human mind, and to be called again to look at the world with wonder.
Howard Shirley is a writer in Franklin, Tennessee.