Richard Holmes

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

Winner, Royal Society Prize for Science Books 2009

Richard Holmes Richard Holmes

'The Age of Wonder' is Richard Holmes's first major work of biography for a decade. It has been inspired by the scientific ferment that swept through Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, and which Holmes now radically redefines as 'the revolution of Romantic Science'.

The book opens with Joseph Banks, botanist on Captain Cook's first Endeavour voyage, stepping onto a Tahitian beach in 1769, hoping to discover Paradise. Many other voyages of discovery swiftly follow, while Banks, now President of the Royal Society in London, becomes our narrative guide to what truly emerges as an Age of Wonder.

Banks introduces us to the two scientific figures that dominate the book: astronomer William Herschel and chemist Humphry Davy. Herschel's tireless dedication to the stars, assisted (and perhaps rivalled) by his comet-finding sister Caroline, changed forever the public conception of the solar system, the Milky Way galaxy and the meaning of the universe itself. Davy first shocked the scientific community with his near-suicidal gas experiments in Bristol, then went on to save thousands of lives with his Safety Lamp and established British chemistry as the leading professional science in Europe. But at the cost, perhaps, of his own heart.

Holmes proposes a radical vision of science before Darwin, exploring the earliest ideas of deep time and deep space, the creative rivalry with the French scientific establishment, and the startling impact of discovery on great writers and poets such as Mary Shelley, Coleridge, Byron and Keats. With his trademark sense of the human drama, he shows how great ideas and experiments are born out of lonely passion, how scientific discoveries (and errors) are made, how intense relationships are forged and broken by research, and how religious faith and scientific truth collide. The result is breathtaking in its originality, its story-telling energy, and not least, in its intellectual significance for the contemporary reader.

Judges' comments

Commenting on selecting 'The Age of Wonder' as the winner, Sir Tim Hunt FRS, Chair of the judges, said: "This is a book about real heroes, scientists like Joseph Banks, Humphrey Davy and William Herschel, who changed our understanding of the world forever. It's extremely accessible, wearing its science lightly while placing it within a much wider cultural context. We all found it a wonderful, eclectic and compelling read, completely absorbing, romantic and original. An extraordinary achievement and a truly worthy winner."

On shortlisting, the judges said: "We all thought this was a fantastic, enlightening and inspiring book, taking characters from the history of science and making them come alive. Richard Holmes has managed to seamlessly merge science, social history and literary history in a wonderful narrative, putting science in a wider context and producing a truly enthralling read."

On longlisting, Philip Ball commented: "To my mind this is the most original book on our long-list. Holmes has thought about the subject in a way that other people haven't done, and it's beautifully put together."

Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books

Royal Society Prize for Science Books

Aventis Prize for Science Books

See the full list of all the winners.