Saturday, January 9, 2010
Book Review: The Age of Wonder
The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes is a fascinatingly incomplete book that is also a little too long. The focus of the book is the time between Captain Cook's voyage to Tahiti and Charles Darwin's voyage to the Galapagos, a time after Newton and Hooke but before Faraday and Einstein. The science of the time coincided with the Romanticism of literature, and the genius of this book is to talk about the overlap of science and poetry in the lives of the great scientists and poets. A big subject, perhaps a little too big, and any criticisms I have are just quibbles -- I want to see more books like this. Yet I feel that sometimes pages are spent on details that are not really relevant to the book's thesis, such as exact details of the goings-on on Tahiti. But just when I started to get impatient an amazing connection emerged, like the fact that Samuel Taylor Coleridge did experiments and science philosophy as well as poetry, or that Humphrey Davy was a published poet. Holmes covers the overlap between science and art extremely well. I don't entirely trust his perspective on the overlap between science and theology, which seems too colored (sorry, coloured) by his 21st-century British tired agnosticism so that he never takes a religious statement at face value. A few times he quoted Davy talking about the resurrection, at least so it seemed from the quote, but instead Holmes talked about extraterrestrial beings as if they must be aliens -- not angels, which I think more likely. In any case, just having a book that boldly makes the connections between science and art is enough for now. Hopefully biographers are coming that can make the connections with faith too.