When was your personal age of wonder? I suspect that for most people it occurred in childhood. The Wonder Years was a TV show that saw it as the teen years.

If you take a dictionary approach to “wonder” then it is to think or speculate curiously, and to be filled with admiration, amazement, or awe – then I lived in a state of wonder when I was ages 5 to 10. Curiosity survived my teen years and early adulthood, but the amazement and awe took a hit.

Now, post-middle-age, I feel like some of that wonder has returned. Oddly enough, that’s at least partially due to an increased interest in science.

I came to author  Richard Holmes via the author and neurologist, Oliver Sacks. He wrote a review of  The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. It’s a book I have seen described as the biography of a period. It focuses on British scientists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.


I can identify with the idea that artists and scientists share “common aims and ambitions and a common language”  and believe in a  “Romantic” humanist science.

Take young Joseph Banks who stepped on a Tahitian beach in 1769 hoping to discover Paradise. He sailed on the HM Bark Endeavour on the first of James Cook’s voyages of discovery in that region. They went to Brazil and to other parts of South America. But then it was on to Tahiti where the transit of Venus was observed (a goal of the voyage.

They went on to New Zealand and to the east coast of Australia, and they mapped the coastline made the first major collection of Australian flora, describing many species new to science. But the botanist’s journal of his first Endeavour voyage in search of new worlds was science and, in Tahiti, a study in sexual libertinism.

Read about Humphry Davy‘s self-experimenting with laughing gas. The Romantic genius in a Promethean quest for knowledge.

The book is more focused on the cultural history than the science, which was fine for me.

Most people know a bit about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and all the science that found its way into Romantic poetry.

Richard Holmes had written earlier about the poet Percy Shelley (Shelley: The Pursuit),husband to Frankenstein‘s author Mary.

He also has written about the poet ‘Coleridge (Coleridge: Early Visions, 1772-1804). Coleridge coined the phrase suspension of disbelief and was a major influence on American transcendentalism. Coleridge suffered from crippling bouts of anxiety and depression and became addicted to laudanum.

His bigger message in all these books seems to be that these polymaths of the late eighteenth century formed the basis for modern scientific discoveries.

Wonder through science and a Romantic quest for knowledge and adventure. It works for me.

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