This book is sort of a Plutarch’s Lives of British Scientists in the late 1700s and early 1800s. This is both a good an bad thing, because Holmes gives sketches of a number of scientists and talks about a broad range of experiments and fields. He also introduces some of the human element of science and the relationship some scientists had with poets like Byron and Shelly.
That said, this book have easily been three or four books about different people. As I read the book, I kept looking for anchoring themes to connect all the stories together. While there was an attempt made to do this, it was primarily just one of “this is how science advances”. While that is interesting in and of itself, I think it could have been edited better.
One recurring person throughout is Joseph Banks, who was President of the Royal Society for Science for much of the book. He pops up, but is not quite the anchor that he could be.
The book was well-researched, and it seems the author wanted to make sure that none of that research went to waste. While there were interesting pieces in each chapter to pull me along, I found myself wanting more connection between all the stories.
That said, I will keep it on my bookshelf. If I ever need a reference for this period or on things like exploration in Africa or the development of anesthesia, I know I can turn to this book.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the history and philosophy of science and those interested in British history in the 18th and 19th centuries.