Richard Holmes

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Richard Holmes refers to this book as his “account of the second scientific revolution, which swept through Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, and produced a new vision which has rightly been called Romantic science” (p. xv). He pins the first scientific revolution to the seventeenth century and centers it on the work of Newton, Hooke, Locke, and Descartes. He brackets the second around 1768, when James Cook began his voyage circumnavigating the world, and 1831, when Charles Darwin began his voyage to the Galapagos islands. Holmes calls this period “The Age of Wonder.” 

Cook’s voyage carried Joseph Banks among its crew. Banks, a young man of great wealth and privilege, joined the expedition as a botanist to assist in the collection of botanical and zoological specimens from stops in the southern hemisphere. He was successful in this endeavor, and made observations about island life along the way (especially while on Tahiti). A few years after his return, he became the president of the Royal Society and would remain so for the next forty–two years.

The Society offered scientists (known then as “natural philosophers”) a place to publish papers, present findings, gain notoriety, receive funding, and develop networks. In his role as President, Banks was connected to many of the scientists included in the book. 

William Herschel and Humphrey Davy are the most prominent figures Holmes covers. Herschel was an accomplished musician and amateur astronomer before he built telescopes that helped him see, characterize, and record heavenly bodies never seen before. While conventional thinking of the time considered the universe to be static, placed by a divine hand, Herschel viewed it as continually evolving. Holmes also gives Herschel’s sister, Caroline, her just due as first his assistant and then as a noted astronomer in her own right.

Holmes focuses on Davy’s more well-known advances in chemistry: finding new elements; analyzing human effects of gasses comprising “common air” and “factitious airs” (e.g., nitrous oxide); inventing a safety lamp for miners; and applying the voltaic battery to chemical analysis. Holmes also details Davy’s role as a popularizer of science through well-received public lectures.

Aside from a chapter on Mungo Park’s ill-fated expedition to Africa, the other chapters have less focus on individuals and more on notable events. One concerns the first flights of hot air balloons, and another on the speculations of electricity as a life force that led to Mary Shelly’s novel, Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus. The final two chapters are in the service of Holmes’s view that “Science is truly a relay race, with each discovery handed on to the next generation” (p.468). He identifies the next generation of scientists and pays particular attention to William Herschel’s son, John, and to Davy’s protégé, Michael Faraday. Both went on to accomplished and celebrated careers. 

Holmes embeds the historical scientific developments and legendary figures into the ordinary daily life and human follies of the time. He describes how scientists and explorers sought public and private funding, and how they collaborated with one other on some occasions and competed with one another on others. We read of court intrigues, societal jostling, courtships and marriages, extramarital affairs (chaste and tawdry), and family relationships (devoted and fractious).  

A broader context Holmes provides involves the interplay among the scientists and explorers he covers and some of the important figures in literature, poetry, and art of Romantic era. Samuel Coleridge, William Cowper, John Keats, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Southey, and Joseph Wright of Derby among others make appearances in the stories Holmes tells. He details the friendships between them and the influences they had on each other.

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