by Richard Holmes
Richard Holmes has a gift for biographical writing. His latest book is a gripping narrative about the Romantic movement and its members' fascination with science and discovery. This was the era that brought professionalism to science, even giving us the very word, 'scientist.'
Holmes begins with Joseph Banks who accompanied James Cook on his first voyage in HM Bark Endeavour as the naturalist. His observations of the native people of the island of Tahiti is surprising in an English culture known for its sense of self-superiority. Banks was not immune to this sense, but he was able to stifle it to permit himself to observe objectively. He returned to acclaim and a position as the president of the Royal Society. He was instrumental in encouraging scientists and explorers alike.
A chapter on balloonists and their hopes to conquer the sky are described next. Curiously, one of the first thoughts that occurred to contemporaries was the potential for warfare. The English were concerned that the French would be able to deliver troops to their island by a fleet of troop-carrying balloons.
A substantial portion of the book is devoted to the Herschel family, William, his younger sister Caroline and his son, John. The story of these dedicated scientists is well observed, especially the portion about William and his sister.
Another explorer that Banks encouraged was Mungo Park, a man one hardly hears of nowadays. He sought to explore the Niger River and find its source, risking life and limb to do so. The description of how the purpose of his trip was co-opted for colonialist ends makes for sad reading.
The life and work of Humphry Davy, arguably the first chemist, takes two chapters. His thorough study of chemical interactions, his discoveries and his inventions are thoroughly covered.
The impact of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is evaluated in a chapter called "Dr. Frankenstein and the Soul." Holmes reviews the Vitalist controversy and helps us see how the book reflects the concerns of its author, and her associates, with science and its role in society.
The last two sections cover Michael Faraday and John Herschel, mostly. The detail in these latter chapters is lacking in comparison to the wealth of the earlier chapters. Extensive chapters on both these men would have been welcome, especially the younger Herschel.
Holmes's bibliography is a fine one and a thorough one and will serve as a valuable resource for readers willing to explore further. He also provides thumbnail sketches of the lives of many of the persons who appear in the book, and some who don't, in an appendix.
This book is one that deserves all the accolades it has received. It does not disappoint.