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LIVE from the NYPL, Richard Holmes: Post Event Wrap-Up


The LIVE from the NYPL program featuring Richard Holmes in conversation with Paul Holdengräber was off to a rocky start last night; the technology controlling the microphones kept malfunctioning. Mr. Holmes joked that it probably had "something to do with homeland security." This prompted a few chuckles from the crowd. When the microphone started acting up again twenty minutes later, Richard commented, "this gives new meaning to [part of] the subtitle of the book; ‘the Beauty and Terror of Science.'" At this point, he had the audience roaring with laughter. On hand to talk about his new book, The Age of Wonder, two things could be gleaned from an evening listening to Richard Holmes. First, he's a brilliant biographer. Second, he really knows how to work a crowd.

Sir Joseph Banks, G.C.B., Digital ID 1104662, New York Public LibraryJoseph BanksHolmes, known for his biographies of literary figures, is doing something dramatically different with The Age of Wonder. In his new text, he tackles the world of science. His book features over 60 scientists and writers from the Romantic Generation. For his conversation with Paul Holdengräber, Richard focused on just a few of the scientists who emerge as something of main characters throughout the book. In particular, he talked about Joseph Banks, who he felt forms the "Greek chorus" of the book. When the book opens, Banks is a 25-year-old botanist taking a treacherous trip to Tahiti. This voyage, which lasts over three years, helps to embody a "theme of daringness" that permeates the entire book. During this expedition, Banks witnesses what is the first European account of surfing. It is through Banks and this incident in particular that Richard Holmes gets at the underlying themes in The Age of Wonder. Namely, the sheer delight that those in the Romantic Generation draw from nature and the idea that in science, one must ultimately give up a sense of control. These themes help form a sort of narrative structure which Holmes hopes will keep his readers engaged until the end of the story.

Dr. W. Herschel, Digital ID 1231948, New York Public LibraryWilliam HerschelAnother main figure in the book is William Herschel, who Richard went back to time and again. He chose to highlight some lesser-known material about Herschel's sister Caroline, which for me was a personal highlight of his presentation. He describes her as the "heroine of the book." It is through Caroline that Holmes explores the role of women in science during this time period. Caroline received a salary from the British government as an observational astronomer, making her possibly the first paid woman scientist in British history. Richard read a small section of the book which chronicles Caroline assisting William in the building of a gigantic telescope with a 7-foot concave mirror. The process took 16 hours, and involved the mirror being cleaned with horse dung. This story is just one of many found in Caroline's intimate journal. This "diary" contained not just an account of her scientific life, but personal observations and feelings as well. Richard mentions that Caroline destroyed about 10 years' worth of her journal after William got married because she probably didn't want people to know how she felt about William's wife and their marriage. She ended up living to around 90 years old, and was instrumental in helping her nephew, William's son, become interested in science as well.

Paul asked Richard about his writing method, which Holmes alluded to throughout the conversation. Despite science being the backdrop of the text, Richard believes that in order "to hold your reader, you [must] create a storyline." None of the chapters in the book begin when the scientists are born. They actually begin at a key moment in the scientist's career, then go back and use their background to examine its significance on their contribution to the scientific community as a whole. He uses scientist Humphry Davy as an example of this. Davy was known for his prolific work discovering gasses. His story begins as he's doing dangerous self-experiments with nitrous oxide, a gas he's recently begun playing around with. Holmes attempts to delve into why Davy uses himself as an experiment model, and what shaped his personal and professional life to want to prove himself time and again as a great scientist. The many stories in The Age of Wonder attempt to answer the question: What is the role of science in society? This question was very relevant during the time that the text examines, but modern comparisons can be drawn to life today. Science is everywhere; should it be feared, or embraced? The ultimate conclusion that Richard would like us to draw from The Age of Wonder is that science should benefit humanity. That's a sentiment I can agree with.