The Age Of Wonder

by Patrick Appel

Adam Kirsch reviews a new book:

In The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, Richard Holmes explores an early-19th-century period of terrificand often terrifiedexcitement about science, of marvelous discoveries that raised humble experimenters to the rank of national heroes. Holmes' subjectsincluding astronomer William Herschel, chemist Humphry Davy, and explorer Mungo Parkwere household names in England, but their discoveries were by no means always welcome ones. Herschel's observation of the stars, for instance, showed that the Milky Way was just one of a vast number of galaxies that were constantly being born, aging, and dying. The Milky Way, Herschel warned, "cannot last forever." It followed, as Holmes writes, that "our solar system, our planet, and hence our whole civilization would have an ultimate and unavoidable end." For the first time, the apocalypse was not a matter of religious faith but of demonstrated scientific fact.