In the middle of his exhilarating exploration of science and the imagination, Richard Holmes takes us up with the first balloonists soaring from earth in the 1780s. They had expected to find out about the sky. Instead, what they saw was the earth: “A giant organism, mysteriously patterned and unfolding, like a living creature.” Their new view of fields and roads, rivers and hills spurred the map makers, while their flight also stirred an interest in meteorology and the formation of clouds. Holmes compares his awed balloonists to the astronauts of the 1960s looking back at the “single blue planet” they had left behind. Each jolt in perception makes us see the familiar map of our lives differently and revaluate our place in the universe

The Romantic generation examined here stretches from Joseph Banks voyaging to the South Seas in the 1760s to William Whewell coining the word “scientist” in 1833. The central figures are William Herschel and Humphry Davy, stars of the “second scientific revolution”, as Coleridge called it in a lecture of 1819.

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