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Home Uncategorized The Birth of Frankenstein

The Birth of Frankenstein

Ronán M Conroy
The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes, HarperPress, 380 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0007149520 A while ago, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland hosted a visit from a party of schoolchildren, who were given a programme of presentations, visits and demonstrations designed to introduce them to science and its practitioners. Afterwards, they were invited to make pictures of scientists. The pictures, which hung in the corridors of several of the college’s buildings for some time afterwards, made interesting viewing. Scientists, we discovered, may be smart, but they can’t do a thing with their hair; they are men, almost to a man, and are frequently found alone, surrounded by test tubes, flasks and beakers of fuming liquids. What was remarkable was the uniformity of the drawings. A whole day of meeting actual scientists had made barely any inroads into the stereotype which, even at such a tender age, they had already thoroughly absorbed. The images of the scientist which emerged during the nineteenth century have had a powerful influence on our relationship with science ever since. Indeed, they can be more readily understood as coming from our need to personify something which we constantly have difficulty in understanding rather than as having arisen from actual scientists. That is not to say that such stereotypes have no basis in reality. The prevailing images of the scientist which captured the nineteenth century imagination were indeed those of real scientists, but the stereotypes which precipitated out around these figures were not just misrepresentations of science in general, but – as you might imagine – gross oversimplifications of the scientists themselves. Richard Holmes comes to this area with impressive qualifications. His biographical studies of Shelley, Coleridge and Dr Johnson have gathered numerous awards, as well as a large readership. The Age of Wonder is his first major work of biography in over a decade, and is an ambitious and far-ranging project. The book opens a window into the very period in which contemporary stereotypes of science began to emerge. Holmes himself is not just an accomplished writer (and speaker) but one whose panoramic overview of his field encompasses an almost bewildering grasp of detail. He immerses us in the age through tracing the lives and work of two key figures: Joseph Banks and William Herschel. Herschel will be a familiar name to many readers, though they…

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