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

Patricia Fara reviews the book by Richard Holmes, in the Literary Review:

Fara_10_08Whatever C P Snow may have decreed about an unbridgeable divide between the Two Cultures, Romantic writers were fully aware of recent scientific discoveries. As a twenty-year-old medical student, John Keats spent a drink-fuelled night enthusing over a newly purchased verse translation of Homer’s Iliad. Early the next morning, he took less than four hours to set down his own famous poem, in which he compared his feelings with those of ‘some watcher of the skies/When a new planet swims into his ken’. Keats was referring to William Herschel, the astronomer who had effectively enlarged the solar system at the end of the eighteenth century by detecting a sixth planet, now known as Uranus, but initially named after George III. At school, Keats and his class mates had learnt about gravity through role play out in the yard: while one pupil remained stationary to act as the sun, the other child-planets circled round at different speeds and distances to form a living orrery, the human equivalent of the moving mechanical model so dramatically painted by the Enlightenment’s great artist of science and industry, Joseph Wright of Derby.

Wright’s famous picture of this astronomical instrument adorns the cover of Richard Holmes’s stellar collective biography, The Age of Wonder. Justly renowned as Britain’s greatest literary historian of the Romantic period, Holmes, in his latest book, gives a gripping account of the scientific research that inspired a sense of wonder in poets and experimenters alike. He calls for, and also delivers, a new approach to science’s history, one that focuses on scientists as individuals rather than as impersonal agents of discovery, and that rejects rigid distinctions between science and the arts, or between science and religion.

More here.