I freely confess that as the years count up since I left university, my favour for working through the details of science has somewhat diminished. This has been replaced by a far greater interest in the history of science and the lives of those who have been instrumental to the progress of our collective understanding of how the world and the cosmos functions. When The Age of Wonder was released a few years ago to many rave reviews, it was not long before it found its way onto my reading list. However, it was not until Christmas 2012 that I received it as a gift. Indeed, this is the last of the books I received for Christmas which I have read. As is my habit, for a particularly long book such as this (it runs for 490 pages plus appendices) I read it rather slowly. In fact, I think I started reading this towards the end of March.
So what’s it all about? In short, it’s a history of science from the late 18th century up to the mid 19th century. But it is so much more than that. Holmes has pieced together a brilliant narrative, held together with some fascinating links. The main link is the person of Joseph Banks, whose story dominates the first chapter, but who keeps cropping up at the start of the subsequent chapters, as Holmes recounts the stories of Mungo Park, William Herschel, Caroline Herschel, Humphrey Davy and Michael Faraday. There are many other characters that Holmes deals with, including those who pioneered manned balloon flights, though I think he has expanded that chapter into a whole new book subsequent to his writing The Age of Wonder.
Subtitled ‘How the romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science’ the book does have a distinct feel to it, for including a good discussion on the link between the arts and the sciences. This is most keenly felt in his chapter entitled ‘Dr Frankenstein and the Soul’ where the talk is a real mix of science and the lives of the romantic poets. He finishes with an epilogue in which he advocates the removal of any supposed barriers between science and other fields such as religion, art and ethics – a stance I wholeheartedly agree with.
The narrative style that Holmes chooses is executed with aplomb. I have to say the book was a pleasure to read, perfectly paced and with something interesting on just about every page. For most of the book I just wanted to keep reading, hoping it wouldn’t end; and for a long time it didn’t. It was only when we got the deaths of William Herschel and Joseph Banks that it seemed right that the book draw to a close, which it did shortly afterwards. As a piece of writing, the quality was superb. The Age of Wonder has jumped into my all-time list of best science books, and possibly the best of any books.
So who would I recommend this to? Well, just about anyone; it’s excellent. An utter joy to behold and one I may well return to. I certainly won’t be donating it to a charity shop. So you’ll have to go out and get your own copy.