age_of_wonder_coverOver at Wongablog, Andrew points to a post he did over at Humanist Life in which he reviews “Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science”, by Richard Holmes. This is one of my favourite topics, and it is certainly a book I’m planning to read, although I have not done so yet.

Andrew writes thoughtfully on the book and the matter in general, and so I’ll leave you to wander over there and have a read of it. To tempt you, an extended (I hope Andrew does not mind) extract:

It’s clear that many humanists see science and wonder as two sides of the same coin, but the concepts have a fractious relationship. During the 19th century the Romantic movement declared that rational thought in fact stifles wonder and dulls the artistic spirit. A deeper understanding of the world, they said, could only be found through feeling and emotion: insight comes from wonder, never the reverse. Such ideas continue to this day. How often do we hear cultural commentators – and religious apologists – decrying science for destroying mystery? It’s reductionist, we’re told, mechanistic and soul-destroying. Wonder, it seems, lies in the nebulous unknown, and the truth is grey in comparison.

Of course, scientists did, and do, object. Richards Feynman and Dawkins have produced whole books countering this anti-science sentiment, and Carl Sagan was a walking counter-example who devoted his life to spreading the pro-science-and-wonder message. But the old clichés still have traction, and so once more unto the breach steps Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder, a hugely ambitious book that argues for scientific/Romantic union by detailing what the author calls ‘the second Enlightenment’, during which science and wonder were as one.

For a brief period – the author says about 60 years over the turn of the 19th century – the wonder so craved by later Romantics was supplied in spades by scientific investigation, and everybody knew it. The poets of the age revelled in the advances coming out of the Royal Society. Nature was still a goddess, and every new discovery of her intricacies provided yet more evidence of her beauty and power. Before the Romantics appropriated and redefined nature as a virginal, innocent female, regularly abused and violated by science (terms of sexual violence are often used, which is vile), a vanguard of intellectual pioneers brought about a flourishing of scientific excitement in a society eager for discovery. The Age of Wonder charts this period, starting in about [...]

Intrigued? Thought so. Go read the rest here.



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