qatsi (qatsi) wrote,

Book Review: The Age of Wonder - How the Romantic Generation discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes
Perhaps the first thing to note is that I wrongly thought this was a diversification from military biographies by Richard Holmes, as I hadn't been aware of Richard Holmes. Silly me. But whoever wrote this book, it's a good one, covering its subject with breadth and depth. Holmes centres his text around three principal figures - Joseph Banks, William Herschel and Humphry Davy - but there are a lot of supporting characters throughout. As such, the topics covered are, unsurprisingly, Captain Cook's voyage to Tahiti; William Herschel's discovery of Uranus - though his sister Caroline also gets a prominent part in her search for comets; and Humphry Davy's work on miners' safety lamps. Casting wider, there are also chapters on ballooning; Mungo Park's trips to Africa; Mary Shelly on vitalism and Frankenstein; and Faraday, Babbage, and others who would take up the mantle of scientific endeavour into the Victorian period. Perhaps the most notable missed opportunity that is documented here relates to Davy's early work on nitrous oxide - he and others noted that people became de-sensitized to pain, but didn't consider the potential of anasthaesia. In part this is explained away as the values of the day, where part of the surgeon's art was to minimize the suffering during operations. Hmm, you have to wonder whether bedside manner has changed much in some cases.
Tags: books, history, science
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