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The Age of Wonder

In his terrific WSJ review of the Age of Wonder, Roger Kimball writes -

Richard Holmes dramatizes how the "Romantic Generation" - bracketed by Capt. James Cook's first voyage around the world in 1768 and Darwin's embarkation for the Galapagos Islands in 1831 - achieved what amounted to a "second scientific revolution" (Coleridge's term), forever altering the course of scientific investigation.

. . .At the intellectual core of The Age of Wonder are three epoch-defining characters: the German-born astronomer William Herschel; the chemist and inventor Humphry Davy, discoverer of sodium, chlorine and other elements; and the intellectual impresario Joseph Banks. Banks, who began his career as chief botanist on Cook's first voyage around the world - he luxuriated for months among the natives in Tahiti - spent 40 years as president and presiding spirit of the Royal Society, Britain's pre-eminent institution of science, founded in 1660. He is implicated in nearly every facet of the career of Romantic science - as nurturer of talent, intellectual peacemaker and, not least, fund-raiser.

When William Herschel needed money to build a huge new telescope, Banks applied not once but twice to George III to pay for the instrument. He extracted a total of £4000 from the royal coffers - then a princely sum. Herschel promptly made good on the investment by discovering a new planet, the first such discovery in 1,000 years.

. . .It is difficult at this distance to recover the shock and exhilaration that Hershel's discovery produced. Suddenly the universe was much, much bigger than most people had imagined, and almost inconceivably older as well. More than 30 year later, Keats memorialized the feeling of amazement in his poem "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer," a literary revelation he likened to "some Watcher of the Skies / When a new Planet swims into his ken."

Intangible wealth

Michael Faraday, Edward Jenner and Charles Babbage - all of them in this website's science timeline - also appear in the book's 544 pages. Pondering why so many discoveries and inventions were made in the island of Britain in this marvellous period, we have a theory. it's not that Britain hit the lottery in scientific brain power.

Britain became a petrie dish of scientific discovery because generations of Brits had established grammar schools, universities and scientific societies that nurtured children and adults. That was the reason that Herschel came to Britain.

As early as the 17th century, Britain had acquired the intangible wealth which alone makes scientific discovery and the acquisition of tangible wealth possible. According to the World Bank, intangible wealth is the primary reason that some countries are richer than others.

Intangible wealth includes education, an honest and efficient judicial system, protected and documented property rights, effective, responsive, incorruptible government and people trusting each other. And, we would add, freedom.

The winds of freedom blew through the fertile period described in the Age of Wonder.

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