The history of science is often understood in terms of individual discoveries rather than as part of a culture’s shared cultural history. Science is too often regarded as having been set apart from the rest of intellectual history, objective and isolated. Nowhere is this more prominent than in the study of the Romantic period, an era of intellectual and artistic development that was characterized by an intense focus on individualism, emotionalism, and subjectivity. “Romanticism” calls to mind Byron, Beethoven, Keats, and Chopin rather than the names of the scientists that come to mind when the Enlightenment is mentioned. The movement is often regarded as having been a reaction against the Enlightenment’s overwhelming focus on rationality and objectivity, and even to have been anti-science. This is at best a gross oversimplification and at worst a total misinterpretation.
In The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, a “relay race of scientific stories” woven together to form a coherent and entertaining narrative of scientific discovery in the Romantic period, Richard Holmes argues that the Romantic period was in fact a “second scientific revolution” (xv). Holmes methodically refutes the commonly held belief that romanticism is “intensely hostile to science, its ideal of subjectivity eternally opposed to objectivity” by presenting biographical and historical studies (Holmes xvi). The kernel of Holmes’ argument is that the sense of wonder at the natural world that is central to so much Romantic art and poetry propelled a new generation of scientific innovation and inquiry.
Not only examining and contextualizing the scientists of the Romantic period, Holmes dissects the cultural legacy of the Romantic period, which has informed our current understanding of science and scientists. He gives particular attention to the Romantic period’s understanding of the scientist and how it has informed our contemporary vision of science as a discipline and its practitioners as noble, questing, and often solitary figures. One of Holmes’ most intriguing arguments is that our current understanding of the scientist is an essentially Romantic concept. His insights into this extraordinary generation’s ongoing contributions and reverberating influence continue, woven beautifully into individual narratives and throughout the entire book.
Holmes’greatest strengths as a biographer and scientific historian lie largely in his ability to keep his subjects firmly rooted in their own temporal and social context while also illuminating this context and its influence on his subjects. He makes the past tangible and understandable with a combination of meticulous detail and well-chosen insights. This emphasizes the past’s difference from our own time while deftly bridging the gaps between the Nineteenth Century mind and contemporary thought. There may be more scientific scientific histories (Holmes is a biographer and historian by profession), but there can be few that are better written or more beautifully structured. Holmes’ understanding of the Romantic period permeates the entire book. Rather than alienating the reader with his conspicuous expertise, Holmes shares it effectively.
For any STEM student seeking to understand the roots of an ancient discipline, The Age of Wonder is invaluable. It is not a newly released book, but none of its arguments or its revelations are dated or passe. In it, Holmes conveys not only the development of contemporary science but also the emergence of the modern mind. Furthermore, at every possible opportunity he demonstrates the intimate and inextricable connection between the two.
The Age of Wonder was published by HarperPress in 2008 and is currently available in hardcover and paperback.