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The Age of Wonder
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Shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and winner of the Royal Society Prize for Science Books, Richard Holmes's dazzling portrait of the most exciting period in British history is a groundbreaking achievement. The book opens with Joseph Banks, botanist on Captain Cook's first Endeavour voyage, who stepped onto a Tahitian beach in 1769 fully expecting to have located Paradise. Back in Britain, the same Romantic revolution that had inspired Banks was spurring other great thinkers on to their own voyages of discovery - astronomical, chemical, poetical, philosophical - which together made up this `age of wonder'. In this compelling group biography, Richard Holmes tells the stories of the Romantic period's celebrated innovators and their great scientific discoveries: from telescopic sight to the miner's lamp, and from the first balloon flight to African exploration.Breathtaking in its originality and storytelling energy, this is a radical vision of the meeting places of science and art, and an extraordinary evocation of an era of exploration and wonder.
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About the Author

Richard Holmes is a Fellow of the British Academy, and was Professor of Biographical Studies at the University of East Anglia (2001-2007). He was awarded the OBE in 1992. His first book, `Shelley: The Pursuit', won the Somerset Maugham Prize in 1974. `Coleridge: Early Visions' won the 1989 Whitbread Book of the Year Award, and `Dr Johnson and Mr Savage' won the James Tait Black Prize. `Coleridge: Darker Reflections' won the Duff Cooper Prize and the Heinemann Award. He lives in London and Norfolk with the novelist Rose Tremain.

Reviews

The Romantic imagination was inspired, not alienated, by scientific advances, argues this captivating history. Holmes, author of a much-admired biography of Coleridge, focuses on prominent British scientists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including the astronomer William Herschel and his accomplished assistant and sister, Caroline; Humphrey Davy, a leading chemist and amateur poet; and Joseph Banks, whose journal of a youthful voyage to Tahiti was a study in sexual libertinism. Holmes's biographical approach makes his obsessive protagonists (Davy's self-experimenting with laughing gas is an epic in itself) the prototypes of the Romantic genius absorbed in a Promethean quest for knowledge. Their discoveries, he argues, helped establish a new paradigm of "Romantic science" that saw the universe as vast, dynamic and full of marvels and celebrated mankind's power to not just describe but transform Nature. Holmes's treatment is sketchy on the actual science and heavy on the cultural impact, with wide-ranging discussions of the 1780s ballooning craze, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and scientific metaphors in Romantic poetry. It's an engrossing portrait of scientists as passionate adventurers, boldly laying claim to the intellectual leadership of society. Illus. (July 14) Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.

`Rich and sparkling, this is a wonderful book.' Claire Tomalin, Guardian, Books of the Year `Exuberant...Holmes suffuses his book with the joy, hope and wonder of the revolutionary era. Reading it is like a holiday in a sunny landscape, full of fascinating bypaths that lead to unexpected vistas...it succeeds inspiringly.' John Carey, Sunday Times `Thrilling: a portrait of bold adventure among the stars, across the oceans, deep into matter, poetry and the human psyche.' Peter Forbes, Independent `A glorious blend of the scientific and the literary that deserves to carry off armfuls of awards and confirms Holmes's reputation as one on the stellar biographers of the age.' Dominic Sandbrook, Daily Telegraph, Books of the Year `No question - the non-fiction book of the year is Richard Holmes's "The Age of Wonder", not only beautifully written, but also kicking open a new perspective on the Romantic age.' Andrew Marr, Observer, Books of the Year `Itself a wonder - a masterpiece of skilful and imaginative storytelling.' Michael Holroyd, Guardian, Books of the Year `Dazzling and approachable. It's a brilliantly written account...original in its connections and very generous in its attention.' Andrew Motion, Guardian, Books of the Year `Witty, intellectually dazzling and wholly gripping.' Richard Mabey, Guardian, Books of the Year `So immediate and so beguiling is Holmes's prose that we are with him all the way.' Sunday Telegraph `Brimming with anecdote, Holmes's enthusiastic narrative amply conveys the period's spirited, often reckless pursuit of discovery with an astute balance of technical detail and the wider cultural picture.' Financial Times

While Romanticism in Great Britain is known mostly as an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement, rapid and revolutionary scientific discoveries were an underlying catalyst to the era's vaunted sense of "wonder." It was also a period when remarkable individuals working alone could make major contributions to knowledge. Historian and biographer Holmes (Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage) conveys the history of Romantic-era science through vivid biographies of a few such individuals. Notable among them are Joseph Banks, a botanist whose experiences in Tahiti were life-changing; William Herschel, the eccentric astronomer who (aided invaluably by his devoted sister, Caroline) discovered the planet Uranus; and Humphrey Davy, an intrepid chemist who conducted gas inhalation experiments on himself. These and others are depicted against the cultural tapestry of an age of idealism, which was both fueled and threatened by the advances of science. The subject makes this book most relevant for readers of general science and history of science, but its engaging narratives of the period could appeal to a broader readership. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 3/1/09.]-Gregg Sapp, Evergreen State Coll. Lib., Olympia, WA Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.

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