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

If asked about some notable figures from the Romantic period, I likely would have just named some poets. Until about a few years ago, I likely would have been satisfied with that answer. About a decade ago I had something of a world view shift that led me to understand that the significant answers about the world we live in would all come from science. But while science was always at least somewhat interesting to me, the history of science still did not have much appeal. But as the science I am now trying to understand gets increasingly complicated, the idea that the key to understanding much of it lies with its history is a possibility I am willing to consider.

Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder follows the prominent figures of the Romantic Generation, but it is not a history book following the birth of the modern sciences, but really a history book that goes into the genesis of the sentiments that most people had about the early scientists. It is really more about how the people of that generation discovered the tools that helped them understand the relationships between the phenomenon of the natural world, the sciences that describe those phenomenon, and the wonder created at the intersection of the two.

This book is not what Neil Postman was talking about. In Technopoly, Postman suggest that a cure to the ignorance of the modern world is to teach complicated subjects like science and math through a history of its events. I am experimenting with that notion, and in no small part did it bring me to this book. I am not sure it worked, however. The key to it all is the words ‘Romantic Generation’. That isn’t to say that that generation is not important, but I think this book suffers to much from that other understanding of the word ‘romantic’. The equivocation suggests that the stories are interesting and that only meritorious. Sure, it is. The story of Joseph Banks was interesting, but I don’t think I saw much of its larger contribution to science as a whole. That part felt left out, and when Banks appeared again and again in the story, this really did start to feel like the story of an old boys club. I don’t think that was what the author was actually going for with this, but it seems to have happened anyway. To be clear, I am not saying that there was no contribution, but it wasn’t made explicit by this book.

I was expecting a book about science. I got a book about a generation in history.

This book is great for the people who want to be nostalgic for a certain past. I on the other hand, am looking for answer regarding my present and my future.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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