The Adventure of Science

This book sounds like a lot of fun. A history of science with a touch of humour and a good flavour of the characters involved. Reviewed here.

In order to structure his big, sweeping book about such issues, Mr. Holmes uses two exploratory voyages as bookends. The first, a trip to Tahiti in 1769 led by Capt. James Cook, brought the eager young botanist Joseph Banks to a place he would regard as a paradise, botanical and otherwise. (Mr. Holmes quotes deftly from Bankss delightfully candid journals, noting that Banks wrote with gentlemanly jeu desprit.) The book then follows Banks back to England, where, at the age of 35, he became president of the Royal Society in 1778. He would hold that post for 41 years and encourage the other young pioneers whose stories Mr. Holmes has told.

The Age of Wonder, a book with a distinct taste for high times, next moves to the golden age of ballooning, which began as an offshoot of paper-bag manufacturing. Gorgeously illustrated, The Age of Wonder captures the full gaudiness of early French ballooning experiments in Easter-egg-colored airborne specimens. And it finds an element of bawdy comedy in the eras gossipy whisperings about what might happen up in the air. (So the first Mile High Club was also formed, Mr. Holmes writes of one such story.)

A wild anecdote about one American-British collaborative effort says of the two balloonists that quite early on, each accidentally managed to drop the others national flag over the side of the basket and then profusely apologized. As to the rest of what was spilled overboard, Mr. Holmess attention to detail raises the question of how exactingly such scientific endeavours really need to be documented.

Much of the book is also devoted to Humphry Davy, whose reputation is multifaceted. He wrote poetry; he had lively friendships with some of the best-known writers of his day; he invented a lamp that would prevent methane gas from exploding and save the lives of countless miners. Best immortalized here, though, are Davys experiments with nitrous oxide, tests in which he eagerly served as guinea pig. Inhaling that substance gave him a thrilling all over me most exquisitely pleasurable, he recorded. I said to myself I was born to benefit the world by my great talents.

A particularly inspired section of the book relates Mary Shelleys Frankenstein to dissection, to the debate about the existence of a life force, and to the way fiction writers and poets could invoke spiritual power while avoiding making reference to God. But by the time the book reaches the Age of Wonders concluding event, Charles Darwins five-year voyage on the Beagle beginning in 1831, it has raised both the antecedents and ramifications of todays most enduring scientific debates, on subjects from global warming to extraterrestrial life to intelligent design. It is impossible to understand where these arguments are headed, The Age of Wonder maintains, without knowing where they began.

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