Thursday, October 07, 2010

Book: Richard Holmes' "The Age Of Wonder"

I occasionally forget that I know a lot about science history.  I guess, since I don't use it regularly, I forget that I've read about it.  That is apparently the reason I read Richard Holmes' "The Age of Wonder".  The book chronicles the history of Science during the Romance period.  The book reminded me that science history, at times, can be uninteresting.

The chapters are arranged roughly chronologically and each chapter follows one important figure of romance science.  Sadly this somewhat limits the breadth of the book.  This is especially true as two of the scientist each have two chapters apiece.  Of the ten chapters covering scientists and explorers such as Davy and Herschel (who seem to dominate most of the book), the first chapter on Joseph Banks and the fifth chapter covering Mungo Park peaked my interest the most.  I guess it's telling that both of these chapters concentrated in exploration while most of the other chapters concentrated in the more mundane scientific pursuits of astronomy and chemistry.  Actually the other chapters concentrated less on the scientific pursuits than on the mundane personal lives of astronomers, chemists, and other scientists.

Joseph Banks went along with Captain Cook and explore the south seas and Tahiti.  Mungo Park was one of the African explorers looking for the source of the Niger river.  These chapters reminded me of my last non-fiction book that I enjoyed.  Reading this book, and these chapters especially, reinforced my interest in travelogue genre.  Unfortunately these chapters are too short.

The remainder of the book felt more like a biography of the scientists than a history of science.  Mixed in with the science was poetry, poetry that I started skipping altogether about half way through the book.  I appreciate the art of poetry but I do not find it pleasurable and find that it often makes my head hurt.  The one non-scientific chapter, at least not directly scientific, is the chapter about Mary Shelley and Frankenstein.  Unfortunately this chapter, despite being named "Dr.Frankenstein and the Soul", is predominantly about medical science during the romance period and only cursorily discusses Shelley's masterwork.

Did I learn something from reading this book?  Certainly.  That doesn't mean I enjoyed it though.  I wish it had covered more of this vibrant time for science.  By limiting it to a handful of British scientist and only barely touching on continental European scientists, it came up short in my opinion.  This is probably why it took me a month and a half to read 469 pages.

I cannot recommend this book despite the fact that it had pictures.

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