The Age of Wonder means the period of sixty years between 1770 and 1830, commonly called the Romantic Age. It is most clearly defined as an age of poetry. As every English schoolchild of my generation learned, the Romantic Age had three major poets, Blake and Wordsworth and Coleridge, at the beginning, and three more major poets, Shelley and Keats and Byron, at the end. In literary style it is sharply different from the Classical Age before it (Dryden and Pope) and the Victorian Age after it (Tennyson and Browning). Looking at nature, Blake saw a vision of wildness:
Tyger, tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Byron saw a vision of darkness:
The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air....
During the same period there were great Romantic poets in other countries, Goethe and Schiller in Germany and Pushkin in Russia, but Richard Holmes writes only about the local scene in England.
Holmes is well known as a biographer. He has published biographies of Coleridge and Shelley and other literary heroes. But this book is primarily concerned with scientists rather than with poets. The central figures in the story are the botanist Joseph Banks, the chemists Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday, the astronomers William Herschel and his sister Caroline and son John, the medical doctors Erasmus Darwin and William Lawrence, and the explorers James Cook and Mungo Park. The scientists of that age were as Romantic as the poets. The scientific discoveries were as unexpected and intoxicating as the poems. Many of the poets were intensely interested in science, and many of the scientists in poetry.
The scientists and the poets belonged to a single culture and were in many cases personal friends. Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin and progenitor of many of Charles's ideas, published his speculations about evolution in a book-length poem, The Botanic Garden, in 1791. Humphry Davy wrote poetry all his life and published much of it. Davy was a close friend of Coleridge, Shelley a close friend of Lawrence. The boundless prodigality of nature inspired scientists and poets with the same feelings of wonder. The Age of Wonder is popular history at its best, racy, readable, and well documented. The subtitle, "How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science," accurately describes what happened.
One feature of the old Age of Wonder is conspicuously absent in the new age. Poetry, the dominant art form in many human cultures from Homer to Byron, no longer dominates. No modern poet has the stature of Coleridge or Shelley. Poetry has in part been replaced in the popular culture by graphic art. Last year I took part in a "Festival of Mathematics" organized in Rome by Piergiorgio Odifreddi, a mathematical entrepreneur in tune with the modern age. Odifreddi borrowed the largest auditorium in Rome, left over from the 1960 Olympic Games, and filled every seat for three days with young people celebrating mathematics. How did he do it? By mixing mathematics with art. The presiding geniuses were the late artist Maurits Escher and the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, with their followers displaying new works of art created by humans and computers. John Nash was there, enjoying the adulation of the students since the film A Beautiful Mind made him an international star. There was also a performing juggler who happens to be a professor of mathematics. He stood on the stage, simultaneously juggling five balls in the air and proving elegant theorems about the combinatorics of juggling. His theorems explain why serious jugglers always juggle with an odd number of balls, usually five or seven rather than four or six.
If the dominant science in the new Age of Wonder is biology, then the dominant art form should be the design of genomes to create new varieties of animals and plants. This art form, using the new biotechnology creatively to enhance the ancient skills of plant and animal breeders, is still struggling to be born. It must struggle against cultural barriers as well as technical difficulties, against the myth of Frankenstein as well as the reality of genetic defects and deformities.
If this dream comes true, and the new art form emerges triumphant, then a new generation of artists, writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses, might create an abundance of new flowers and fruit and trees and birds to enrich the ecology of our planet. Most of these artists would be amateurs, but they would be in close touch with science, like the poets of the earlier Age of Wonder. The new Age of Wonder might bring together wealthy entrepreneurs like Venter and Kamen, academic professionals like Haussler, and a worldwide community of gardeners and farmers and breeders, working together to make the planet beautiful as well as fertile, hospitable to hummingbirds as well as to humans.