The Romantic period wasn’t only for literature—it caught up scientists and explorers as well (many of whom were also writers). Together, the groundbreaking work of men like Mungo Park, Joseph Banks, Humphrey Davy, and the sibling astronomers, William and Caroline Herschel, made the late 18th and early 19th century “the second scientific revolution.” In his Age Of Wonder (Pantheon, $40), Richard Holmes, biographer of Coleridge and Shelley, brings this era vividly to life. Encompassing global exploration, botany, geography, geology, chemistry, and astronomy, it led to inventions like the hot air balloon, the dynamo, the miners’ safety lamp, and the smallpox vaccine. Scores of comets and meteors were tracked, and Uranus was discovered. Holmes clearly explains the relevant scientific principles, but it is his details of the actual experience of carrying out forays into the unknown that sets this history apart. He describes, for instance, just how cold and dark a winter night was when spent in a top-heavy telescope tower, buffeted by the wind. Or what Humphrey Davy hallucinated when he overdosed himself in a laughing gas experiment.
Combining adventure, exploration, and biography, the multi-award-winning Age Of Wonder (Pantheon, $17.95) satisfies the needs for excitement, suspense, and plain-old good story-telling. Richard Holmes opens the treasure trove of knowledge and ambition that was Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, taking to the open seas with Captain Cook, experiencing the sensuous exotica of Tahiti with Joseph Banks and his crew, and surveying the night sky over England with William and Caroline Herschel. Then there’s Humphrey Davy and his experiments with laughing gas, unpredictable hot-air balloon flights, Mary Shelley’s examination of humanity’s Promethean aspirations, and the growth of the Royal Society. Holmes has a quick wit and an eye for the telling quirk, making his narrative as entertaining as it is informative.