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The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World -

By Jenny Uglow Farrar, Straus and Giroux

588 pages, $30

I suppose the first thing a prospective reader would want to know about this book, part biography, part social history of 17th century England, is the identity of the men so described, what they did, and why they were called "lunar."

The lunar men included Matthew Boulton, manufacturer; his partner, James Watt, of steam engine fame; Josiah Wedgwood, potter; Erasmus Darwin, physician, poet, inventor, theorist of evolution and chaser of skirts. Also among the group was Joseph Priestly, discoverer of oxygen. All were men of the English Midlands, amateur experimenters, far from London and, for the most part, distinct from university life.

Why the appellation "lunar men"? Remember that there was no electricity. If you wanted to go out for dinner and a few drinks, it was best if one chose ". . . the Sunday nearest the full moon, a common date for gatherings at a time when social life hung on the phases of the moon." On dark nights, it was a good idea to stay home.

Erasmus Darwin explained how a night of lunar men activity might flow: "Lord! What inventions, what wit, what rhetoric, metaphysical, mechanical and pyrotechnical, will be on the wing, bandy'd like a shuttlecock from one to another or your troop of philosophers!"

They were experimenters, using each other's intellects to expand their own perceptions.

Jenny Uglow, an editor at Chatto & Windus in England, who earlier wrote biographies of Hogarth, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot, wonderfully portrays the underpinnings of the rise of science through the development of technology in the 17th century. Her language is startlingly evocative: This book smells of sweat and chemicals and oil, and resounds to the thud of pistons, the tick of clocks, the clinking of cash, the blasts of furnaces and the wheeze and snort of engines but it also speaks of bodies, courtships, children, paintings and poetry. Explorations and explanations of medicine, toys, pots, steam, canals, light, mechanics, chemicals, romance, crockery, rocks, the planets, riots, you name it; they're all in "The Lunar Men," a great book teeming with facts, brimming with life.

Michael D. Langan is a frequent News contributor.

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