Gift Books: People in History
They're a combination of biography and cultural history, and all the more fascinating for that. Moreover, read in sequence they have a lot to say about the nineteenth century, particularly in England. All three deal with science and scientists, while two relate directly to the arts and politics of the day.
The most obvious pairing begins with The Atmosphere of Heaven: The Unnatural Experiment of Dr. Beddoes and His Sons of Genius by Mike Jay (Yale.) This is a detailed and fascinating look at the earlier part of the century, when the effects of the French Revolution were shaking up English politics and culture. Though centered on the relatively (and unjustly) unknown Thomas Beddoes, the cast of characters includes Coleridge, James Watt, Thomas Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin, Charles' grandfather. Beddoes, Darwin and several others were polymathic Renaissance men by today's standards, and they deeply influenced the arts as well as sciences.
Author Jay quotes Darwin writing that Beddoes epitomized this era's "age of wonders." The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Pantheon) by Richard Holmes more or less takes up where Jay leaves off historically, following the mid 19th century Romantic poets (especially Shelley) and their connections with the science of their day, reflected in their work (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, not the least.) Holmes is the better known and more reviewed book. The two make a fine pair.
The scientific figure who tends to focus the mid 19th century for today is of course Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution by natural selection remains arguably the most consequential theory even in the 21st century so far. There were lots of books on Darwin this year, the 200th anniversary of his birth, but I particularly liked The Young Charles Darwin by Keith Thompson (Yale) for its clarity about a part of Darwin's life that hasn't been widely examined. It provides a more focused look on the science of the day.
All three books suggest what an adventure it was to be involved in the arts and sciences then, with opportunities for insights and achievement as new discoveries cascaded, science was changing rapidly and was defining itself. These books suggest what was gained but also what was lost now that science and art are so separated, and it is so much more difficult for anyone to have any comprehensive sense of significiant discoveries, how they relate, and what they mean in the larger sense.