The Age of Wonder

Most people familiar with the history of science will know of early pioneers like Galileo, Newton, Priestley, and Lavoisier. Also recognizable are towering figures like Darwin and Einstein, as well as many others from the late 19th and 20th centuries.

The period between these eras has been more mysterious, at least until the publication of Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. The book is witty, charming, inspiring, and highly recommended. So is the author, as I learned firsthand at a lecture he delivered at CHF last week.

Holmes’ overarching aim in writing the book was to refute the idea that the origin of the “two cultures” schism—between sciences and humanities—was in the Romantic Age. In fact, he stresses that we simply cannot afford such divisive thinking, and a successful future rests on bridging any such gaps.

Surely a book that links astronomy, chemistry, ballooning, Tahiti, nudism, Frankenstein, surfing, poetry, laughing gas, and the nature of pain qualifies as a bridge builder par excellence.

And the ending of The Age of Wonderoffers a stirring synopsis of the three things a scientific culture can sustain: a sense of wonder, the power of hope, and a questing belief in the future. These we can surely live with.

Posted In: Education | History

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