The Age of Wonder
Posted on by Dr. Harold Varmus
Summertime! Long weekends, a vacation, the threat of boredom. Time for uninterrupted reading—on beaches or in air-conditioned bedrooms. A chance to look beyond the best-seller lists or the daily news to dive, with full concentration, into one or two books that some friend has argued might be a life-changing experience. In that spirit, here are two for which I would make that argument to almost any friend.
In the sphere of science: The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes (HarperCollins, 2008). Holmes is primarily a literary biographer (of Coleridge and other Romantic poets), but also an art historian and a science junkie, who has written about ballooning and women scientists. Of the many books I’ve read about the growth of the scientific enterprise, The Age of Wonder stands out for several reasons: its deep engagement with the full range of cultural and political currents in which science arises; its focus on the excitement about discovery—geographical, astronomical, chemical, biological—that permeated the late 18th and early 19th centuries; and its absorption with personal histories of people who made those discoveries. Holmes is a superb storyteller and drawn to the complexities of life (especially in Britain) that influenced the talented people—Joseph Banks, Humphry Davy, several members of the Herschel family—who made novel observations that changed our perceptions of the world and solidified the place of science.