Wednesday 30 May 2018

Richard Holmes' 'Age of Wonder' at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

One of the emerging traditions for the Dr Johnson Reading Circle is a yearly popular science book. We’ve looked at Roy Porter’s Enlightenment and Jenny Uglow’s Lunar Men, this time it was Richard Holmes’ Age of Wonder.

It details a 71 year period, from Joseph Banks’ journey with Cook on the Endeavour to the deconstruction of a forty-foot telescope in 1840. This, Holmes argues, is the age of wonder, a period of discovery where the impulses of poets combined with those of scientists. The book is a ‘relay-race’ of biographies, paying particular attention to Joseph Banks, Humphrey Davey and the Herschels. 

These longer biographies are interspersed with smaller ones of African Explorer, Mungo Park and a particularly entertaining chapter on balloonists. This chapter was funnier then most comic fiction, and made me laugh out-loud. Balloonists were showboating types, more showmen than scientists, dressed smartly and rising in gaudy orbs to the appreciation of huge crowds. The first airborne channel crossing ended ignominiously with the the two rival/allies landing in France wearing nothing but a life jacket and chamois gloves - having jettisoned the rest of their clothes to get over French cliffs. 

Daredevil balloonists aside, the book dealt with three main people. The first being Joseph Banks, the rich, enterprising botanist whose openness and flexibility let him integrate in Tahiti better than most of the other crew. Having returned from the Pacific, he tried to get a few other expeditions under way but when they failed, he settled down with his plants and became the president of the Royal Society. Using his charm, nurturing ability and skill in spotting talent, he prodded British science into the industrial revolution.

One of these talents was a Hanoverian amateur astronomer called William Herschel. This musician and space-nut had some strange notions that space was not a dome but a near infinite void in which the light of the stars takes time to reach the Earth - he also believed in aliens on the moon. Using telescopes of his own design, he discovered the new planet later known as Uranus. His sister Caroline, as well as being his dedicated assistant, was also a skilled astronomer, discovering numerous nebulae and a number of comets. 

Humphrey Davey is the subject of the third main biography. Probably the best example of what Holmes calls ‘romantic science’, not only was he a wide ranging scientist but he was also a keen (if slightly leaden) poet. Despite being a genius discoverer of gases and solver of problems (such as the safety lamp) he didn’t endear himself greatly to the readers with his desire for fame and harsh treatment of his assistant, Faraday.

Although the group loved the vigorous writing of the book, there were two issues that came up.

The first was one of structure. Having read The Lunar Men, a truly masterful wrangling of group biography, The Age of Wonder’s structure of turn taking was less focused. Where some were happy to roll with the book, others wanted something tighter. 

The second issue was one of romantic science. There were questions about how the scientists of the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century science was different to earlier science. I also wonder whether it could be said that science (to scientists at least) has ever lost its romance.

Issues aside, this was yet another book which introduced us to another fascinating group of people (with another strange web of connections) and also thrilled, tickled and entertained us.

As usual, ideas in the book was batted back and forth across the room, jokes shared and other books recommend. Also as usual, the chat was carried onto pizza and wine before drifting into the night.

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