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Welcome to Wonderland

Innovation always has a history. Two books remind us that the present isn’t the only age of wonder.

The early 21st century may be coined an ‘age of innovation’, much of it on the back of a revolution in information and communication technology. In my experience, however, engineers and entrepreneurs are only too aware that this age gets much of its energy from other fast-changing epochs, when science and culture shared a common vision of a bright new world.

As an example, recent work from western historians has highlighted the contribution made by the Islamic Renaissance to mathematics, poetry, medicine et al, with the likes of the Abbasid Caliphate and the rise of the city of Baghdad in 762—where ‘the ink of the scholar is more holy than the blood of the martyr’. This golden age produced the translation factory where Islamic and Christian scholars combined to translate the Greek and Latin texts of the classical age, which were then ferried back to Europe to prime the Enlightenment, where science and literature weren’t so much separate as common tongues.

All of which serves to sit Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder within a long tradition which sees science, literature and the arts as different lenses to the human imagination.

Covering 1768 to 1831, imagination is at the core of this magisterial study—a concept familiar to Holmes’ other great biographical subject, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who saw imagination as the core to poetry and as such the unifying force to the creative and scientific arts. (On a curious note, Coleridge is also credited with inventing the term ‘scientist’.)

Although The Age of Wonder has more characters than a Dickens novel, the main ‘stars’ are Sir Joseph Banks, botanist, amateur scientist, first chair of the Royal Society, founder of Key Gardens; astronomers William Hershel and his sister Caroline, who discovered Uranus; and chemist and inventor Humphry Davy, the wonderfully talented man from the west country.

Ironically, Banks probably needs the most introduction for UK readers. Here in the Antipodes, we see Banks’ scientific credentials a lot more clearly. There is online access to Banks’ journals at the University of New South Wales and, closer to home, papers on Banks are archived in the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre. Banks not only opened an era of scientific excellence, he also did more than most to establish the Royal Society and Kew Gardens as intellectual powerhouses to ongoing classification, discovery and exploitation of the fauna of the globe.

Banks’ support of patronage for science also helped develop a brilliant set of science pop stars whose live demonstrations literally electrified the age. One of the greatest is Humphrey Davy, whose London public talks caused traffic jams in the West End, so curious were all to see his experiments with laughing gas and his life saver for miners, the Davy safety lamp.

Herschel also gets extensive treatment. It’s the most successful of the biographies. I suspect this is partly due to Holmes’ sympathy for the continental underdog (Herschel was an immigrant from Germany), and the presence of his brilliant sister Caroline adds another dimension to the tale. Then there is Herschel’s son John, who in turn was a friend at Cambridge of the young Charles Babbage, whose Difference Engine is widely seen as a precursor of the computer.

The cast teems and flows into life, beside which runs the artist—the poet and the entrepreneur. It is a glorious tale—and one that, in sheer energy of execution, commends itself to a wide audience. For the entrepreneur, web 2.0 enthusiast or anyone remotely in the van of economic innovation, this is a must-have text, and one that deserves close and happy reading.

 

On a more solipsistic note comes The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel, an elegant—but by no means uncritical—tale of the library through the ages. It’s been around for a while but the paperback has introduced a whole new audience. Manguel takes the reader on a series of historical episodes of the library in 15 conceptual slices, such as ‘The Library as Myth’ and ‘The Library as Shadow’.

It’s a cute device. It keeps the subject under control and also allows him, in the chapter on ‘Space’ for example, to connect the founding of the Library of Congress with the story of the Japanese Empress Shotoku in 764 with the 1751 Encyclopédie of the French Enlightment.

He opens his thoughts in ‘The Library as Power’ with a lovely vignette on Leibnitz, the philosopher and mathematician. Being a member of the intellectual elite of his time (he died in 1716), Leibnitz was no radical—nevertheless his work as a librarian to one of the best library collections of his age, and his participation in one of the great networks of scientific and literary correspondence, again establishes the essential democratic nature of the life of letters and scientific inquiry.

As Manguel points out, it then took the likes of the great industrial philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, to extend the reach of the library as a network to life-long learning and personal empowerment.

Running alongside the historical anecdotes and the nostalgia for the great lost libraries of the past, The Library at Night contains a welcome assessment that the digital age brings its own potential—especially in the century-old search for the means and mechanisms to bring the world’s knowledge into the reach of all—both as contributor and as a consumer.

Though having a very different style and purpose, both books take us back and forward to the future by way of real people, and underpin the thought that although our own story and our own age of wonder might not be wholly original, it is definitely time we started thinking about our own accounts of the present age of wonder.

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