The Age of Wonder

The Age of Wonder - CoverEarlier this year I read Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder – a glorious book about the intertwining of science and Romanticism, before the latter decided to go it alone. I’ve reviewed it over at HumanistLife:

I spent the first few months of 2009 travelling around humanist groups and asking their members one question: ‘what are you happy about?’. I was collecting answers for a book, and I quickly hit a snag: people kept giving the same response. It seems that many, many humanists are happy about the joys of the world, the thrill of experience and the fact of their very existence – in short, the wonder of life. Which is a lovely thing. Somewhat problematic for me, but buoying nonetheless.

The sentiment was so prevalent that it’s tempting to wonder whether it’s a rare (unique?) point of agreement among self-described humanists. I started asking for more details, and found a surprising level of agreement on the inspiration for said wonder. Biology was a common source of delight, as were cosmology and quantum physics. Others waxed lyrical on the power of the arts, or the pure elegance of mathematics. But science was by far the most popular.

It’s clear that many humanists see science and wonder as two sides of the same coin, but the concepts have a fractious relationship. During the 19th century the Romantic movement declared that rational thought in fact stifles wonder and dulls the artistic spirit. A deeper understanding of the world, they said, could only be found through feeling and emotion: insight comes from wonder, never the reverse. Such ideas continue to this day. How often do we hear cultural commentators – and religious apologists – decrying science for destroying mystery? It’s reductionist, we’re told, mechanistic and soul-destroying. Wonder, it seems, lies in the nebulous unknown, and the truth is grey in comparison.

Of course, scientists did, and do, object. Richards Feynman and Dawkins have whole books decrying the idea, and Carl Sagan was a walking counter-example who devoted his life to spreading the opposite message. But the old clichés still have traction, and into this gap steps Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder, a hugely ambitious book that argues for scientific/Romantic union by detailing what the author calls ‘the second Enlightenment’, during which science and wonder were as one.