March 31, 2020

Review: The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes.

Every once in a while, a book crosses our nightstand that just makes us say “Wow…” We then have to ration out this discovered gem, lest we burn the midnight oil and consume it in one lost weekend…

Such a discovery came to us in the form of recent book The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. Out by Pantheon Books, this huge opus does nothing short of charting the course of science through the early 1800’s. From Joseph Banks to William Herschel to Humphrey Davies, many a fascinating untold tale is contained in this book. I explicitly saved this book for reading during our Ecuador trek late last year, as adventure travel deserves good reading to go along with it. Each of these tales are an engaging read, and cover such diverse fields as astronomy, chemistry, anthropology, and botany. Of course, since this is an astronomically based blog, the chapters on William Herschel came first. Herschel’s meteoric rise to fame is engagingly covered, as well as the feats of his sister, Caroline, an astronomical powerhouse in her own right. Her achievement of eight comet discoveries with her 6“ inch “comet sweeper” is a feat that few observers have topped before or since. Herschel is most famous for his discovery of the planet Uranus, but did you know that he also harbored more eccentric ideas such as life on the Moon, or even the Sun?

The book opens with Joseph Banks and his firsthand account of the Cook expedition to Tahiti in 1769. Virtually never before or since has such an account been witnessed of an unspoilt (and very un-English!) encounter. We thought it was amusing that the sailors had taken to trading nails with the natives for sexual favors, as metal was almost unknown to the Tahitians and hence a precious commodity. In fact, several sailors went AWOL while on the island, and Cooks’ ships themselves nearly came apart in a storm due to the large amount of fasteners removed!

The path of the tale goes on to cover the exploits of some of the first aerial balloonists. Far from a drole account of “The Golden Age of Ballooning,” Holmes weaves a fascinating tale of these first daring aeronauts. It’s amazing to think that these first men that ascended knew almost nothing about the changes in temperature and air pressure that occurred when rising through Earth’s atmosphere. Many learned the hard way, as they charted the atmosphere, but often fell to their deaths.

Never heard of Mungo Park? Neither had we, until reading of his adventures in this book. Mr. Park attempted to find the legendary city of gold, Timbuktu, in deepest Africa. The ultimate fate of Park is subject to great controversy, as his final where-abouts remain unknown.

Much of the poetry and wonder of science is captured throughout this book, as well as the transformation of science from the superstitious realms of astrology and alchemy to a serious straight laced study, able to produce viable results. As the author astutely points out, the roots of anti-science has its place in the era as well, as the concept of a feminine Mother Nature refusing to reveal her secrets is transmuted into an array of scientists probing her for her knowledge. Perhaps no cautionary tale relates this better than Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, the origins of which are related in this book.

Much of the good, as well as the lighter, side of science is revealed as well. Such is the case of Sir Humphrey Davy, a scientist who did early experimentation on various gases, often on himself! Not only did he often get high on nitrous oxide gases with other stoner contemporaries as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but he nearly killed himself on numerous occasions with carbon monoxide. Still, we have him to thank for such life saving advances in ether and anesthesia… he also invented the Davy Safety Lamp, a simple but elegant solution to a fatal mining problem.

Many more tidbits and tales await in this excellent work, more than can be related here. Read the Age of Wonder if you are fascinated by the history of science, or simply like a good and engaging read. It’s fascinating to imagine just how hard won most of our current scientific knowledge really is, and what a messy business accumulating it has truly been!


  1. [...] Fall chemistry class starts…I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a book as thoroughly as this since The Age of Wonder. This was one tale I was sad to see come to an end! Share [...]

  2. [...] and the modern era. I don’t think we’ve enjoyed a science history book as much since Age of Wonder, another essential tome on early 19th century discovery in science. We need more true tales of [...]

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