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

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

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Sue Baker's view...

Winner of the 2009 Royal Society Prize for Science Books.

Richard Holmes describes his book as a relay race, set on the cusp of the 1800’s with discovery following after discovery, our own planet, the sky above us and the universe beyond. And interweaved throughout is the literary reaction to this exciting new world with perhaps Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein being the most well-known. Of all the books shortlisted for the Royal Society’s Science prize this year Richard Holmes’ history stands out a mile; for the exciting story he has to tell, the skill with which he writes and explains the science involved and not least the way he so beautifully conveys the ferment of the times.

Comparison: Joseph Banks by Patrick O’Brian, The Comet Sweeper: Caroline Herschel’s Astronomical Ambition by Claire Brock, Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future by Jenny Uglow

Who is Sue Baker

Synopsis

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

Richard Holmes, prize-winning biographer of Coleridge and Shelley, explores the scientific ferment that swept across Britain at the end of the 18th century in his ground-breaking new biography 'The Age of Wonder'. 'The Age of Wonder' is Richard Holmes's first major work of biography in over a decade. It has been inspired by the scientific ferment that swept through Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, 'The Age of Wonder' and which Holmes now radically redefines as 'the revolution of Romantic Science'. The book opens with Joseph Banks, botanist on Captain Cook's first Endeavour voyage, stepping onto a Tahitian beach in 1769, hoping to discover Paradise. Many other voyages of discovery swiftly follow, while Banks, now President of the Royal Society in London, becomes our narrative guide to what truly emerges as an Age of Wonder. Banks introduces us to the two scientific figures that dominate the book: astronomer William Herschel and chemist Humphry Davy. Herschel's tireless dedication to the stars, assisted (and perhaps rivalled) by his comet-finding sister Caroline, changed forever the public conception of the solar system, the Milky Way galaxy and the meaning of the universe itself. Davy first shocked the scientific community with his near-suicidal gas experiments in Bristol, then went on to save thousands of lives with his Safety Lamp and established British chemistry as the leading professional science in Europe. But at the cost, perhaps, of his own heart. Holmes proposes a radical vision of science before Darwin, exploring the earliest ideas of deep time and deep space, the creative rivalry with the French scientific establishment, and the startling impact of discovery on great writers and poets such as Mary Shelley, Coleridge, Byron and Keats. With his trademark sense of the human drama, he shows how great ideas and experiments are born out of lonely passion, how scientific discoveries (and errors) are made, how intense relationships are forged and broken by research, and how religious faith and scientific truth collide. The result is breathtaking in its originality, its story-telling energy, and not least, in its intellectual significance.

Reviews

'Rich and sparkling, this is a wonderful book.'
Claire Tomalin, Guardian, Books of the Year

'Exuberant...Holmes suffuses his book with the joy, hope and wonder of the revolutionary era. Reading it is like a holiday in a sunny landscape, full of fascinating bypaths that lead to unexpected vistas...it succeeds inspiringly.'
John Carey, Sunday Times

'Thrilling: a portrait of bold adventure among the stars, across the oceans, deep into matter, poetry and the human psyche.'
Peter Forbes, Independent

'A glorious blend of the scientific and the literary that deserves to carry off armfuls of awards and confirms Holmes's reputation as one on the stellar biographers of the age.'
Dominic Sandbrook, Daily Telegraph, Books of the Year

'No question - the non-fiction book of the year is Richard Holmes's The Age of Wonder , not only beautifully written, but also kicking open a new perspective on the Romantic age.'
Andrew Marr, Observer, Books of the Year

'Itself a wonder - a masterpiece of skilful and imaginative storytelling.'
Michael Holroyd, Guardian, Books of the Year

'Dazzling and approachable. It's a brilliantly written account...original in its connections and very generous in its attention.'
Andrew Motion, Guardian, Books of the Year

'Witty, intellectually dazzling and wholly gripping.'
Richard Mabey, Guardian, Books of the Year

'So immediate and so beguiling is Holmes's prose that we are with him all the way.'
Sunday Telegraph

'Brimming with anecdote, Holmes's enthusiastic narrative amply conveys the period's spirited, often reckless pursuit of discovery with an astute balance of technical detail and the wider cultural picture.'
Financial Times

About the Author

Richard Holmes, one of Britain's best-known military historians (and President of the British Commission of Military History), has selected over 200 photographs taken for the most part by officers and men rather than by official photographers – mostly unfamiliar ones located in archive collections, regimental museums and private sources. There will also be specially taken photographs by Mike Sheil, one of the best battlefield photographers working today.

The book will deal with the whole of the British Army's experience of the First World War – Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, and so on – and not just on the Western Front. The photographs will be grouped thematically as extended picture essays; topics include the pre-war army and mobilisation of 1914; the contribution made by nurses; medical treatment and the wounded; infantrymen and their weapons; the campaign in Mesopotamia, etc…

Like 'Tommy', the book is about people rather than things, about the human experience of war rather than its strategy or tactics, and at least as much about the everyday or commonplace – a latrine here or a plate of bully beef there – as about the lofty or portentous. It shows us the dirt beneath the fingernails of history.

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Book Info

Publication date

3rd September 2009

Author

Richard Holmes

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Author's Website

richardfholmes.org

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Publisher

HarperPress an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

Format

Paperback
380 pages

Categories

Popular Science
All Shortlists and Winners
eBook Favourites
eBook Favourites

Biography: science, technology & medicine
Impact of science & technology on society

ISBN

9780007149537

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