The Age of WonderFriday, 12 February 2010
It’s one of the most interesting books I’ve read recently, the impact of the ‘beauty and terror’ of science on the romantic age, from the late 1700s through the early 1800s. I’ve always been fascinated by Joseph Banks, the young, rich and endlessly inquisitive gentleman scientist on Captain Cook’s first great voyage of discovery. If I could time warp myself back to one great trip in history, that would be the one I’d chose.
Banks is the background facilitator and controller who links all the chapters, but the other principal characters are equally interesting, ranging from early balloonists to Frankenstein’s creator Mary Shelley.
It’s the Herschel family I really warm to, William Herschel, an amateur (at first) astronomer who discovered Uranus, built state-of-the-art telescopes and all this as a sideline from music, which was his real (or trained at least) expertise. His son John and his ‘tough little German sister’ Caroline also come alive in this surprisingly warm book. Today, when religion still seems to be fighting a losing battle against science, it’s interesting to see the early stages of that long term collision taking place.