Tag Archives: biology

Initial thoughts on The Age of Wonder

Thoughts on The Age of Wonder

 

I have been somewhat sporadically reading The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. (Sporadically because I’ve just started a new job, and someone who shall remain nameless has gotten me hooked on World of Warcraft to the point where I have to play it myself, and then there’s the musical theatre group that I don’t practice for enough…anyway…..) It’s a good book, and definitely worth the acclaim that it got. It’s not without flaws, though, and since this is a relatively critical blog, I thought I’d mention them.

One of the things is just me and my personal history and education in the Romantic era. I took a class in my study-abroad year on Romanticism (primarily in literature) which focused a lot (a lot a lot) on the political and intellectual background of the era – the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, the extending of the vote in the UK and the Corn Laws and the “Industrial Revolution” and the resulting unrest, etc. [England in 1819? Highly topical sonnet by Shelley and brilliantly scathing if you know the characters] To me, primarily because of this class, the political/current-event background of the time period is essential to the issues in Romanticism. We discussed, in detail, how the world that these writers lived in shaped their mentality and ideas and forms – whether by addressing them in their work (Shelley, Wordsworth in some things, Mary Wollstonecraft), by allegorizing them (Byron, Shelley some more), or by ignoring them and focusing on something else entirely (Keats). (These examples are not exclusive of other writers, nor inclusive of all of these writers’ work.)

This book….doesn’t. It doesn’t completely ignore the political situation – there’s a scientist mentioned who was guillotined, balloon technology was feared because it could have military implications, etc. – but it doesn’t make any sort of claim or connection between the external situation and the scientists’ internal motivations. I know it doesn’t have to, necessarily, but if something is specifically about the “Romantic generation”, then I want to know what about it being the “Romantic generation” led to this seemingly sudden explosion in scientific research and discovery – and so far it’s not giving me that.

If anything, it’s more a book about Joseph Banks and his protégés/connections/influence and assistance than it is a book about the Romantic generation’s discovery of science. Banks was the focus of the first chapter (which was actually the chapter so far that I’ve had the hardest time keeping interest in), and he has shown up in every following chapter – almost as the guiding hand for all of the research. He was President of the Royal Society (or whatever) so it makes sense – but he’s definitely the link, and that structural connection isn’t really even hinted at in the title or back-of-book summary. (Side question that I really should know, but I don’t: is there a technical term for the back-of-book/dust jacket summary thing?)

The other thing that I’ve been thinking of in connection with this book is the definition of technology. This is something that pops up every once in a while in my life, often when someone calls themselves a “Luddite” or makes similar comments about technology (usually in the “it’s taking over the world!” vein). The thing is, almost everything is technological. When people say, “I’m giving up on technology and going to live in the woods!” they forget that things like axes (for cutting down trees) and matches (for starting fires) and baskets (for collecting food) are all technology.

I noticed it in this book with the chapter on ballooning. It refers to “balloon technology”, which struck me as odd when I first read it. We don’t usually think of balloons, even hot-air balloons, as being “technology”, but they are. Everything we use is technology – it’s not limited to electronics or computers or internal combustion engines.

I still have four chapters left to read; I’ve just finished the chapter on Humphrey Davy and his research into nitrous oxide. I’ll probably post again when I’ve finished the whole thing.

 

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Filed under Non-Fiction (History), Non-Fiction (Science)

A Brief History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

I really like Bill Bryson’s writing voice. It’s wry, it’s distinctive, it’s colloquial without being overly dated.  I was a little bit nervous about this book, because I tend to like Bryson’s specifically travel books better than anything else (I have not gotten all the way through Thunderbolt Kid, for instance – although I haven’t tried his Shakespeare book yet). But I quite enjoyed this book, which, if you don’t know, is all about the history of science. Every science – chemistry, physics, geology, biology, anthropology, paleontology, astronomy, etc. – is described from the beginning of the Enlightenment to the beginning of the 21st century. It’s like a travel book through the history of science.

One of the things that reading books like this does to me is make me want to read more books like this. I walked into Blackwell’s today and had to restrain myself from buying an anthology of science writing. I also had to restrain myself from adding lots of obscure public-domain science books to my list, and looking up ways that I could get extra degrees in things like chemistry or bacterial biology or astronomy or even just mathematics. Books like this also make me want to write books like this: I have at least one travel book started in my head now. The only problem is that my writing keeps sounding like Bryson, and not so much like me yet.

Because that’s another thing that reading books like this does to me: it makes me want to know everything about everything. The world doesn’t know a lot about bacteria? I should study it! It’s a part of my whole ‘searching-for-focus’ thing that doesn’t work well because I’m interested in EVERYTHING. I want to find a niche that I can fill; unfortunately the niches that are out there don’t quite mesh with my current education or experience.

I did notice quite a few references in the book to amateurs – people who were in other fields and did science almost as a dedicated hobby, and ended up making amazing discoveries. I don’t know how feasible that would be today. Most of the things that I am interested in (genetics, for example, or astronomy) require equipment that I don’t have access to at this point, and I don’t know how I would be able to get access to it. Maybe I’ll become a mathematical ‘celebrated amateur’ instead. Or a (semi-trained) linguist. (Or maybe I’ll just stick to being a voracious reader of everything that I can get my hands on.)

Overall I liked the book, obviously. Also, I figured out how to read footnotes on the ereader, which is a plus. Science is fascinating, and Bryson makes the history of science accessible. I probably won’t remember some of the names and facts in a week or so – it’s not a textbook, and I wasn’t taking notes or anything – but the love of it definitely will stay with me.

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Filed under Non-Fiction (Science)

Some days, I wish I had studied science

Genetics was my favourite part of biology class, and is one of the reasons that I sometimes wish that I’d continued studying science past high school. I still follow science news, though, and was intrigued by this article about the Quagga. There are only 23 hides left, and yet from these 100+ year old skins they were able to extract enough DNA to analyse it and plan a breeding program. Thank goodness that there are still enough Plains zebras around to make such a project feasible. I doubt a similar program would work with the big cats or the rhinos (there’s a subspecies of black rhino, I think it is, that is near extinction): the gene pool just isn’t varied enough.

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