The Age of Wonder

Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder examines the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a time of remarkable discovery and intellectual ferment in Great Britain. Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1453; On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, 1939) had already delivered a blow to the human ego, demonstrating that the universe did not literally revolve about humanity. This initial revolutionary insight was developed by subsequent explorers, astronomers, botanists, and physiologists, whose work revealed that the world was vaster, older, and more varied than earlier thinkers might have imagined. Holmes makes a distinction between the first scientific revolutionled by aristocratic scholars who wrote in Latin and, in England, held membership in the Royal Societyand the second scientific revolution, characterized by exploration and open to a broader literate public, including women.

According to Holmes, the second scientific revolution, or “age of wonder,” falls between 1768, when Captain James Cook began his circumnavigation of the globe on the HMS Endeavour, and 1831, when Charles Darwin began his own voyage around the world on HMS Beagle. Scientific discoveries of the period helped shape its literature and poetry, which in turn defined the mental and emotional world, as well as the public image, of the “scientist,” a term that would be coined a few years later. The personages participating in this revolution are many, and Holmes focuses on two, Sir William Herschel, who with his sister greatly broadened the scope of astronomy, and Sir Humphrey Davy, a physician’s apprentice who became one of the most important chemical discoverers and expositors of science to the public.

Tying together much of Holmes’s narrative is the career of Sir Joseph Banks, who, as president of the Royal Society from 1778 to 1820, was in a unique position to know about and encourage scientific developments throughout England. The Royal Societyfounded in 1662 and enjoying, at least nominally, the patronage of the monarchwas then, as now, the most prestigious scientific society in England. Under Banks, it became the key organization in recognizing and supporting scientific achievement.

Holmes argues that the age of wonder was characterized by a number of interrelated trends. Government, in the person of the monarch, became active in providing financial support and recognition for scientific projects. Working-class individuals found various means of pursuing scientific careers. Training in classical Latin and Greek was no longer indispensible for the natural philosopher. Institutions such as the Royal Institution were established to popularize scientific concepts. Women could make scientific contributions without using pseudonyms, and popular books about science were penned by both male and female authors.

Poets and other writers during this period wrote about scientific developments and often socialized with scientists. Scientists, including the key individuals in Holmes’s narrative, often wrote and sometimes published verse and speculative prose themselves. Throughout the age, new ideas on religion were propagated. Some scientists became freethinkers, others remained conventionally religious, and some vacillated between these extremes.

Holmes begins his story with the exploration of Tahiti in 1769 by Banks, who accompanied Cook at his own expense as the Endeavour’s botanist. Banks was a classically educated Englishman of independent means who, before his departure, was considered to be the fiancé of Harriet Blosset, a proper young Englishwoman. However, his voyage, and perhaps the relaxed sexual mores of the Tahitians, increased his yearning for adventure to the point that he begged off the engagement on his return, precipitating a scandal.

Scandal notwithstanding, Banks was invited to Windsor in August of 1771 and quickly formed a friendship with his near contemporary, King George III. By 1773, he was in effect the director of the Royal Gardens at Kew and was cohabiting with a young woman named Sarah Wells. In 1778, he was elected president of the Royal Society and began courting an heiress, Dorothea Hugessen, after “tactfully and generously” parting from Wells. The great adventurer Banks suffered...

(The entire section is 1777 words.)