Energetic analysis of the "Romantic Age of Science."Romanticism,
the deeply emotional artistic movement of the second half of the
18th century, was partly a reaction against the pragmatism of
Enlightenment scientists. However, British historian Holmes
(Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer, 2000, etc.)
writes, the divide between scientific endeavors and artistic
pursuits was not always so clearly delineated. The author focuses
primarily on the lives of two men who straddled both worlds, who
embraced "Romantic science" and pursued it with the passion of
poets or painters. Astronomer William Herschel, who discovered the
planet Uranus in 1781, started his career as a musician. That led
to an interest in mathematics and then astronomy, which he pursued
with the same emotional fervor as any classical music piece. He
even compared his skill at seeing astronomical phenomena with the
skill required to play Handel's fugues. Holmes also looks at the
British chemist Humphry Davy, who, among other accomplishments,
discovered that chlorine and iodine were elements. Early on, Davy
wrote poetry, and later became friends with Samuel Taylor
Coleridge. One of his poems celebrated "science, whose delicious
water flows / From Nature's bosom." Davy's enthusiasm led to risky,
self-destructive behavior - he often inhaled strange chemical gases
as experiments, a practice that nearly killed him. While partaking
of nitrous oxide with acquaintances, he extolled the glories of
science: "I dream of Science restoring to Nature what Luxury, what
Civilization have stolen from her - pure hearts, the forms of
angels, bosoms beautiful, and panting with Joy & Hope." Davy
may have had a brilliant scientist's brain, but he had the heart
and soul of a poet. How these two contradictory ideas not only
coexisted, but flourished together during the Romantic era, makes
for engrossing reading.Enjoyable excavation of a time when science
and art fed off each other, to the benefit of both communities.
Shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and winner of the Royal
Society Prize for Science Books, Richard Holmes's dazzling portrait
of the age of great scientific discovery 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 artistic and scientific
discovery - astronomical, chemical, poetical, philosophical - that
together made up the `age of wonder'. In this breathtaking group
biography, Richard Holmes tells the stories of the 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.
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