How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
By Richard Holmes
In 1768, Captain Cook and his crew set out to circumnavigate the globe, a journey that would open a whole new world up to Europeans and fuel a renewed interest in science and exploration. Just 63 years later, the Beagle embarked on an expedition that would culminate in Darwin’s theory of evolution, a theory that, it may be argued, has removed the romance from science and replaced it with cold, hard logic.
The years bookended by these two historic sea voyages are the time period explored in Richard Holmes’ book, The Age of Wonder. The first half of the book is absolutely brilliant. Exotic Tahiti, the early days of ballooning, and huge breakthroughs in astronomy are described with such enthusiasm and wit that I couldn’t get enough of it. The stories truly are fascinating. Don’t believe me? Consider the tale of the two balloonists that quarreled their way across the English Channel, a passage that ended dramatically with the men mostly naked and half-frozen (p. 149-152).
Unfortunately, the second half of the book was a bit of a bore for me. And allow me to emphasize the for me. In its second half, the book starts to delve more into philosophy. Is there a God? Why are we here? Does some part of us endure after death? You know, the age-old questions.
Problem is, I don't do philosophy. This is my secret shame. I really want to be philosophical and deep, etcetera, etcetera, but the minute someone mentions transcendentalism or existentialism, my brain shut right off. I can’t tell Plato from Socrates, and Descartes works better than Ambien for me. (And to be honest, I don’t even know if what I’ve written even has anything to do with philosophy, but it sounds pretty good, wouldn’t you agree?)
Holmes takes the traditional view that the horror of science is that it may one day turn on us (a la Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) or that the scientific method has replaced wonder with cynicism and logic. I guess for me, the only horror lies in getting so caught up in wondering why science can’t tell us where we’re going or why we’re here that one forgets to enjoy the mysteries and beauty that science can expose.
First half of the book: 4 stars
Second half: 2 stars, but will appeal to those with a more philosphical bent
* Sorry, my comuter is acting up, and I can't seem to post pictures or comments. My apologies!