Book of the week: The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes

Richard Holmes upends current notions of the Romantic Era in his "hugely enjoyable” new book about the enthusiasm for scientific discovery during the late-18th and early-19th centuries.

(Pantheon, 552 pages, $40)

In December 1783, nearly half a million­ Parisians assembled in the Tuileries Gardens to watch inventor Jacques Alexandre Charles attempt the first manned flight of a hydrogen balloon. The experiment did not disappoint. Over the next two hours, Charles and his assistant flew north some 27 miles and touched down gracefully in front of another waiting crowd. But when Charles’ assistant stepped out in Nesle, the balloon shot skyward, taking its frightened inventor with it. He ascended to 10,000 feet before regaining control. “Never,” he said later, “has a man felt so solitary, so sublime—and so utterly terrified.” Charles chose never to fly again, says author Richard Holmes, but the ­episode captured the spirit of the age.

Holmes’ “subtle, illuminating, and hugely enjoyable” new book recasts the entire image of the period we know as the Romantic Era, said The Economist. Far from marking a retreat into intense subjectivity, the late-18th and early-19th centuries were a period when both poets and scientists shared an exuberance for discovery that produced what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “a second scientific revolution.” Holmes is “certainly the man to undertake this intellectual salvage operation,” said Roger Kimball in The Wall Street Journal. An accomplished bio­grapher of both Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley, he’s intimately attuned to the particular tone of the era. He wisely bookends his narrative with James Cook’s 1768 voyage around the world and Charles Darwin’s 1831 trip to the Galápagos Islands. His cast of “vivid” characters, meanwhile, is anchored by a trio of “epoch-defining” figures—the ­­­astro­nomer­ William Herschel, the chemist­ Humphry Davy, and “intellectual impresario” Joseph Banks.

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Like these other wizards, Herschel drew no hard line between art and science, said Janet Maslin in The New York Times. A musician by training, the German-born astronomy enthusiast “effectively doubled the size of the solar system” when he ­discovered the planet Uranus in 1781. Holmes “speculates fascinatingly about the ramifications” of that breakthrough, helping us feel anew why Herschel’s contemporaries were unsure whether to consider it cause for “wonder or terror.” In a book that’s both “amazingly ambitious” and profligate with “throwaway brilliance,” we catch a glimpse of how all histories of science should read. After all, “why should this kind of story not be told as enthusiastically” as our stories about artists and poets?

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