I’m about halfway through Richard Holmes The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. Holmes uses the stories of an inter-related set of individual British scientists: the aristocratic botanist and administrator Joesph Banks, the German emigre astronomer William Hershel, and the romantic populist chemist and inventor Humphry Davy, and uses their stories to tie together social change, art, science and the personal lives of scientists in a vivid, rich way. He writes that he is describing the ‘second scientific revolution, which swept through Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, and produced a new vision which has rightly been called romantic science.’ Its a fantastic book, which I highly recommend.
Below are some reviews
In this big two-hearted river of a book, the twin energies of scientific curiosity and poetic invention pulsate on every page. Richard Holmes, the pre-eminent biographer of the Romantic generation and the author of intensely intimate lives of Shelley and Coleridge, now turns his attention to what Coleridge called the “second scientific revolution,” when British scientists circa 1800 made electrifying discoveries to rival those of Newton and Galileo. In Holmes’s view, “wonder”-driven figures like the astronomer William Herschel, the chemist Humphry Davy and the explorer Joseph Banks brought “a new imaginative intensity and excitement to scientific work” and “produced a new vision which has rightly been called Romantic science.”
The phrase “Romantic Chemistry” did not always mean the sexual spark between two people. At the birth of English Romanticism, chemistry and other sciences, notably astronomy and the physics of electricity, were exciting components of the new mood. For so long assumed to be polar opposites, Romanticism and Science are justly reunited in Richard Holmes’s new book.
The defining trait of Romanticism for Holmes is expansiveness. Joseph Banks and Mungo Park explore Africa and Polynesia, losing their Eurocentric blinkers, and in Park’s case his life; William Herschel sees the universe as an evolving structure; Humphry Davy sees chemistry and electricity as vital forces, as opposed to the predictable billiard-ball mathematics of Newtonian atomism. Literary figures such as Coleridge, Wordsworth and Southey were at first thrilled by these revelations of natural forces and felt that they harmonised with their own yearnings for a poetry of power beyond the polite civilities of Alexander Pope.
The Romantic imagination was inspired, not alienated, by scientific advances, argues this captivating history. Holmes, author of a much-admired biography of Coleridge, focuses on prominent British scientists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including the astronomer William Herschel and his accomplished assistant and sister, Caroline; Humphrey Davy, a leading chemist and amateur poet; and Joseph Banks, whose journal of a youthful voyage to Tahiti was a study in sexual libertinism. Holmes’s biographical approach makes his obsessive protagonists (Davy’s self-experimenting with laughing gas is an epic in itself) the prototypes of the Romantic genius absorbed in a Promethean quest for knowledge. Their discoveries, he argues, helped establish a new paradigm of “Romantic science” that saw the universe as vast, dynamic and full of marvels and celebrated mankind’s power to not just describe but transform Nature. 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.