Age of wonder

Published: Sunday, January 16, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 15, 2011 at 12:09 a.m.

In “The Age of Wonder,” Richard Holmes writes about the knowledge revolution that began at the end of the 18th century — basically, when scientists started to hang out with artists.

He called it the age of “romantic science.”

Indeed, many of the leading scientists of the day were themselves accomplished artists. Astronomer William Herschel was a celebrated musician. Chemist Humphrey Davy wrote prose and collaborated with the likes of Byron and Shelley.

I thought about Holmes' book the other night at the Phillips Center, when Ray Kurzweil (inventor, performance artist, futurist; aka romantic scientist) expounded on the “law of accelerated returns” and the inevitability of exponential breakthroughs in science and technology.

Kurzweil said he especially enjoys lecturing at universities, where “critical thinking is celebrated.”

I had witnessed just such a celebration of critical thinking earlier that evening at the Museum of Natural History.

Local painter Annie Pais had convened a group of business people, artists, educators, environmentalists and scientists for no other reason than getting them to chat with each other.

Pais is the founder of Florida's Eden, a group dedicated to showcasing the area's natural and cultural assets: our springs, rivers, forests, small towns and artistic communities. But her co-sponsors included some decidedly more pragmatic partners: the Chamber of Commerce, GAIN (Gainesville Area Innovation Network) the technology incubator GTEC, Santa Fe College and several businesses.

If I were to coin a phrase for what Pais' trying to get, I'd call it “romantic economic development” — this notion of getting entrepreneurs, inventors, greens, artists, educators and investors in the same room to engage in creative cross-pollination.

“It's in these kinds of informal gatherings, these small group conversations, that creativity happens,” said GTEC director Booker Schmidt.

Given some of the things that are beginning to percolate around here: the launch of Innovation Square, the Cade Museum for Innovation and Invention and UF's still growing R&D enterprise — it's not difficult to imagine Gainesville entering its own Age of Wonder.

“We have the two ingredients most essential for success. Immense talent resources ... and the fact that we live in this remarkable place,” Pais said. “We need to get out of our silos and talk to each other, share our ideas.”

Holmes ends “The Age of Wonder” with the admonition: “The old, rigid debates and boundaries ... are no longer enough .... We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective.”

So do we, Gainesville.

The “old, rigid debates” — that business is business, that the arts are window dressing, that environmentalism is anti-business and that the eggheads should stay in their ivory tower — are as baseless as the notion of turning lead into gold.

Wonder where all this creative collaboration is going to take us?

Ron Cunningham is editorial page editor of The Sun. He can be reached at or at 352-374-5075. Read his blog, Under The Sun, at

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