“The Age of Wonder” is as sprawling as it is dazzling. Holmes begins with Joseph Banks, who towered over the English scientific establishment in the 19th century. Wealthy and charismatic, Banks was a botanist, libertine, and scientific impresario (three words rarely associated, which together tell you something about Romantic science) who voyaged to Tahiti with Captain Cook, helped to usher in natural history’s golden age, and inspired a “botanizing” rage among both the scientifically and the poetically inclined of the English upper middle classes.
Holmes’s book is populated by a diverse number of similarly lively characters, including William and Caroline Herschel, siblings whose rigor and zeal transformed observational astronomy; Humphry Davy, autodidact chemist and inventor of the mining lamp; mathematician Charles Babbage, who all but invented the computer more than a century before the advent of the microprocessor; polymathic poet and physician Erasmus Darwin, whose spirit inspired his grandson to follow nature wherever it took him.
Holmes hardly stints on the poets, either, charting the work and opinions of Wordsworth, Southey, Shelley, Schelling, and Coleridge – who vowed to “attack Chemistry like a shark,” and whose verse is filled with stellar imagery that is a legacy of its author’s fascination with the Herschels’ discoveries.