The Age of Wonder: A book review by Bob Morris

Age of WonderThe Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science
Richard Holmes
Pantheon Books (2009)

A brilliant examination of the Romantic spirit and its “great journey” during the evolution of science

While explaining “how the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science,” Richard Holmes focuses on what “became the first great age of the public scientific lecture, the laboratory demonstration and the introductory textbook, often written by women. It was the age when science began to be taught to children, and the `experimental method’ became the basis of a new, secular philosophy of life, in which the infinite wonders of Creation (whether divine or not) were increasingly valued for their own sake…Finally, it was the age which challenged the elite monopoly of the Royal Society, and saw the foundation of scores of new scientific institutions, mechanics institutes and `philosophical’ societies.”

Although Holmes poses and then responds to hundreds of questions or has others do so, “the book remains a narrative, a piece of biographical storytelling. It tries to capture something of the inner life of science, its impact on the heart, as well as on the mind. In the broadest sense it aims to present scientific passion, so much if it which is summed up in that childlike, but infinitely complex word, wonder.”

In the Epilogue, offering an especially eloquent and compelling conclusion to his book, Holmes acknowledges that “there is a particular problem with finding endings in science. Where do these science stories really finish? Science is truly a relay race, with each discovery handed on to the next generation. Even as one door is closing, another door is already being thrown open….

“But science is now continually reshaping its history retrospectively. It is starting to look back and rediscover its beginnings, its earliest traditions and triumphs, but also its debates, its uncertainties and its errors…Similarly, it seems to me impossible to understand fully the contemporary debates about the environment, or climate change, or genetic engineering, or alternative medicine, or extraterrestrial life, or the future of consciousness, or even the existence of God, without knowing how these arose from the hopes and anxieties of the Romantic generation.

“But perhaps most important, right now, is the changing appreciation of how scientists themselves fit into society as a whole, and the nature of the particular creativity they bring to it. We need to consider how they are increasingly vital to any culture of progressive knowledge, to the education of young people (and the not so young), and to our understanding of the planet and its future. Foe this, I believe science needs to be presented and explored in a new way. We need not only a new history of science, but an enlarged and imaginative biographical writing about individual scientists…

“The old, rigid debates and boundaries – science versus religion, science versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics – are no longer enough. We should be impatient with them. We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective. Above all, perhaps, we need the three things that a scientific culture can sustain: the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe. And that is how this book might possibly end.” And indeed so it does.

Congratulations to Richard Holmes on a brilliant achievement. Bravo!

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