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The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World Hardcover – February 22, 2011

4.4 out of 5 stars 64 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A Victorian science expert at St. John™s University, Snyder offers a four-in-one biography of 19th-century scientists William Whewell, a polymath whose expertise ranged from geology to moral philosophy; Charles Babbage, credited with inventing the first computer; John Herschel, a noted astronomer and mathematician; and Richard Jones, who created the academic discipline of economics. In 1812, when academic science was still a backward field, the four Cambridge students founded the Philosophical Breakfast Club, devoted to scientific discussion. Snyder provides insights into their personal lives, their myriad professional accomplishments, and their influence on science and economics. She underscores the importance of their accomplishments by placing them into modern context, for example, pointing out that Jones™s empirically based economics, which placed economics in a larger social and political context, is in vogue again. Snyder also describes Whewell™s important integration of religion and Darwinism. Each of the four figures is a worthy subject in his own right, and by combining their stories Snyder provides the right balance of biography and science. It also allows Snyder to discuss a wide range of scientific developments that are sufficiently modern to appeal to today™s readers. (Jan.)
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From Booklist

When Coleridge complained in 1833 that a man digging for fossils or experimenting with electricity did not deserve the title �natural philosopher,� physicist William Whewell responded by coining a new word: scientist. Behind this coinage, Snyder discerns a cultural revolution, one that Whewell had helped to launch in a series of Cambridge breakfast meetings with three classmates: Charles Babbage, John Herschel, and Richard Jones. Together these four mapped out a plan for perfecting the scientific method and harnessing it for social benefit. Snyder chronicles the subsequent collaboration of these breakfast visionaries: Whewell mapped ocean tides; Babbage designed the first computer; Herschel pioneered photographic technology; Jones translated economics into rigorous mathematics. Collectively, this band forged an identity for the scientist and thus cleared cultural space for Darwin and James Clerk Maxwell. Snyder, however, also recognizes the irony in the professional narrowing inherent in this new identity, since the daring four who established it claimed horizons too broad to fit within its limits. A striking account of how a few bold individuals catalyzed profound social change. --Bryce Christensen

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books; First Edition/First Printing edition (February 22, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0767930487
  • ISBN-13: 978-0767930482
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,090,531 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Laura J. Snyder is a historian, philosopher and writer. She is a Fulbright Scholar, Life Member of Clare Hall (Cambridge University), and professor of philosophy at St. John's University in New York City. Snyder is the author of "Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek and the Reinvention of Seeing," as well as "The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends who Transformed Science and Changed the World," which was an official selection of the TED Book Club, a Scientific American Notable Book, and winner of the Royal Institution of Australia's 2011 poll for Best Science Book. She is also the author of "Reforming Philosophy: A Victorian Debate on Science and Society." She writes for The Wall Street Journal and other publications. Her TED Talk on the Philosophical Breakfast Club has been viewed over one million times. Watch it here: http://on.ted.com/i074p

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This scholarly but very accessible history of science in the early nineteenth century centers on four young Cambridge undergraduates, William Whewell, Charles Babbage, John Herschel, and Richard Jones, who meet for breakfast on Sundays in 1812 to discuss their passion for "natural philosophy" (science) and their equally strong passion to reform how science is done. They are strong admirers of Francis Bacon, who emphasized an inductive methodology whereby data is gathered and observations made that lead to theories being developed that can then be further tested. This contrasted with the standard science methodology of the time, which was deductive and depended more on logic than observation, hence the common term "natural philosophy". The young men also want science to emphasize work that will help mankind. Such idealism has been common in young people throughout history, but these four men do not give up their dreams, and they each play important roles in a transformation of science that significantly shaped our modern world.
Like most people interested in science, I had heard of Babbage, the father of the present-day computer, and the Herschel family of astronomers. Whewell is a less familiar name, but he is revered enough to have his statue facing that of Francis Bacon at Trinity College in Cambridge, an honor that would no doubt please him immensely. I never heard of Jones, although his treatise on economics criticizing Ricardo and calling for the use of statistics was very influential.
The book discusses the lives of these men and their activism in the name of modernizing science within a broader discussion of the major developments in science in the first half of the nineteenth century.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Laura J. Snyder's "The Philosophical Breakfast Club" focuses on the work of four remarkable men who changed the course of history. They were William Whewell, John Herschel, Richard Jones, and Charles Babbage. Before they became widely known, these individuals were friends who, while having breakfast together on Sundays at Cambridge, discussed ways of elevating and modernizing scientific inquiry. They were admirers of the seventeenth century reformer, Francis Bacon, who asserted that keen observation, rational thinking, and precise measurements would lead to significant and practical discoveries. Whewell, Herschel, Jones, and Babbage were destined to gain fame as brilliant innovators in such fields as astronomy, mathematics, economics, botany, and chemistry.

Babbage is best remembered for his ingenious invention that is considered to be an early version of our modern computers. Herschel, like his renowned father, William, was an astronomer who swept the skies with his powerful telescope. Jones focused on political economy, a controversial discipline in the nineteenth century. Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, and David Ricardo had promulgated various theories and Jones took issue with a number of their conclusions. Whewell was a mathematician and an academic who wrote quite a few influential works.

Snyder's impressive research and fascinating anecdotes bring the atmosphere of this amazing era to brilliant life. She points out that "natural philosophers" used to rely on little more than personal observation and guesswork. Whewell coined a new term, "scientist," to designate an individual who combines intellect and verifiable facts to reach conclusions that can be replicated and verified by others.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
William Whewell's destiny changed between noon and 2 p.m. in in late 1808 or early 1809. The headmaster and parish curate knew William was destined for academic greatness and it was on lunch hour that he spoke to William's father. William's father was reluctant to give up his apprenticing son in the family business of carpentry, to study math and science. In the end, however, the offer was to good to pass up; William would be given a scholarship and then further help would come from all of the town.

All of Lancaster would contribute as they could to their rising star, William Whewell. Amongst the very well off students, William stood out: "a tall, ungainly youth, with grey worsted stockings and country-made shoes."

This book is the very meticulously researched story of four men who together brought about the scientific method of advancing science. William Whewell, Charles Babbage, John Herschel and Richard Jones. Each of these men is fascinating, brilliant and accomplished (not to mention good looking- Whewell found, to his surprise, he was something of a ladies' man) John Hercshel, only son of the famous astronomer, initially fought the idea of following in his father's footsteps.

Prior to their breakfast club there was in 1812, the Analytical Society attended by Babbage, Herschel, Whewell and many others. They met weekly to discuss mathematical papers.

Clubs, during this period in British history, were commonplace. There were reading clubs, country clubs, coffee-drinking clubs, dining clubs, cardplaying clubs... In fact, there were reported to be as many as twenty thousand men meeting in various clubs in London alone during the mid-eighteenth century. So the Philosophical Breakfast club was not unique for being a club.
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