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.