Saturday, November 26, 2011

age of wonder i

So I'm going to have to break this one up into chunks; its a big boy. The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes, that is. I put this one on my list at some point a few months ago. I think I heard Holmes on a radio talk show, but I can't be sure.

Holmes has broken the story of this scientific era down into a series of stories focused on some of the larger movers in shakers in this age of wonder, as he calls it. That era of giddy exploration, and scientific discovery that took hold of the public imagination, and often drew the public in, creating countless amateur scientists, many of which ended up making significant discoveries or contributions to this explosion of knowledge.

The age of wonder Holmes is talking about runs from the mid- to late-1700s until the early-to mid-1800s. Holmes calls his story structure a 'relay race of scientific stories' that carries the reader through the heady, 'Romantic' science of the day with compelling stories (thus far, anyway) of the people who pushed the boundaries of science outward and upward, beginning at a time when the infant United States was just standing up, Franklin was spending time in Paris before Napoleon took France, and the monarchs of England, France, and Germany vied for scientific bragging rights.

Holmes really seems to love research, and it shows in his writing. The book is thick with both end notes (boring), and footnotes (riveting*). In fact the backmatter contains (in addition to the end notes) a bibliography, list of abbrevaitions, a cast of charaters (along with short biographies), and index and an epilogue.

There are also three little groups of illustrations tucked in at the quarter points, showing the players, big and small, diagrams, notes on discoveries, and images of scientific instruments.

* A few of the footnotes are mini stories, all their own. I can imagine Holmes spinning off on a tangent to find out more about some minor character, or cross checking some calculation and spending days doing the research for his footnote.

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