The Age of Wonder, By Richard Holmes

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The Independent Culture

Holmes's epic biographies of Shelley and Coleridge are dazzling journeys of intellectual exploration. Fans describe them with a delighted awe that very few other biographies manage to generate. Holmes has now done the same for the scientists of the Romantic era.

They range from Joseph Banks, the naturalist and anthropologist who accompanied Cook's expedition to Tahiti and returned to unconventional celebrity in London (he was "a reliable source of...Indian hemp, 'Bang' and cannabis"), to William Herschel, whose discovery of nebulae sparked modern cosmology: "I have looked further into space than any human before me. I have observed stars [whose] light must have taken millions of years to reach earth."

Present-day researchers will doubtless envy the ease with which Herschel obtained a grant of £4,000 (the same cost as the whole of Cook's expedition) from George III for his 40ft telescope. The intertwining of science and poetry in the Romantic age is a recurring theme. A friend of Coleridge, Humphrey Davy wrote poetry and advocated the recreational use of nitrous oxide (he perceived "the forms of angels, bosoms beautiful, and panting with Joy and Hope").

William Lawrence, a dashing, agnostically-inclined doctor who had researched craniology in Germany before curing Percy Shelley's psychosomatic ailments, was a template for Dr Frankenstein. Brain food of the most interesting and compelling kind, this is a book that readers will love as much as the author's Shelley: The Pursuit.

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