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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great for history fans, science buffs, and anglophiles!
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...
Published on December 17, 2010 by Angie Boyter

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3.0 out of 5 stars A bit disappointing.
The author had some difficulty keeping the threads together, and sometimes got too bogged down in detail instead of letting the story flow.
Published 12 months ago by William De Stefano


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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great for history fans, science buffs, and anglophiles!, December 17, 2010
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Angie Boyter (Ellicott City, MD USA) - See all my reviews
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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. It may be astonishing to a modern reader, but in the period when they lived, little thought seemed to have been given to combining theory and experience by using individual observations to develop general formulae or predictions, even in practical matters such as timing of tides. The chapter on forming the British Association for the Advancement of Science in reaction to the Royal Society is a fascinating glimpse of academic and professional politics of the nineteenth century. Some things never change! A chapter is devoted to the ever-ongoing disputes about the relation of science to religion, which caused quite a rift between Babbage and Whewell. There are also sections on specific scientific fields, such as Babbage's quest to build the first computer and the work of various members of the group on astronomy, tides, the mapping of the earth, the development of photography, and even cryptology. Babbage's project has interest far beyond its visionary anticipation of today's computers. Babbage saw his Difference Engine as an analogy to the way God might interact with the world, and Darwin attended a demonstration of the Engine soon after finishing his voyage on the Beagle that introduced him to the notion of God as a divine programmer. There is some entertaining discussion of the astronomical work of the time, such as the discovery of Neptune, and I especially enjoyed the chapter on economics and was amused by their belief that economics would be a good subject to address as their first major example of how Baconian induction could be applied to science. This first attempt to put economics into a mathematical form proved to be somewhat more difficult than anticipated!
Like many of the best books of its type, The Philosophical Breakfast Club is a mixture of broad themes, such as the reform of science that the quartet so passionately pursued, and fascinating smaller details, such as the fact that Whewell originated the term "scientist" (after the poet Coleridge objected to continued use of the term "natural philosopher"), as well as the terms "uniformitarianism" for Lyell's geological theory," Eocene", "Miocene", and "Pliocene" for historical epochs, and "ion", "cathode", and "anode". Some of the vignettes are quite humorous, such as a description of Lord Byron's pet bear.
I acknowledge the validity of the observation by several reviewers that there are some distracting digressions, but they were interesting, so I did not consider them a flaw.
If you are interested in history, science, or how scientific methodology developed, The Philosophical Breakfast Club is well worth your time.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Science was stagnating.", January 21, 2011
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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. The author humanizes her subjects by describing their triumphs and accomplishments as well as their failures and tragic losses. They had their share of pettiness and neuroses, but they could also be generous, loyal, and altruistic. It is eye-opening to learn how much these four men managed to accomplish throughout their lives.

In addition to her depiction of Whewell, Herschel, Babbage, Jones, and their colleagues, Snyder provides a valuable picture of the political and social climate of England from the 1820's until the 1870's. For the most part, women stood on the sidelines, not for lack of ability but for lack of opportunity. Snyder provides useful background information about how the Industrial Revolution brought about a demographic shift from farms to cities. Unemployment and poor living conditions led to labor unrest and even outbreaks of violence. One controversy that raged (it still does today) is whether the benefits of technological innovations outweigh their disadvantages.

This is a challenging and occasionally dense book in which Snyder goes into the minutiae of complex mathematical and astronomical concepts. Those who are not well-versed in these areas may not understand all of Ms. Snyder's explanations. However, readers who can tolerate the occasionally abstruse technical writing will be richly rewarded. This is a well-documented and thought-provoking work of non-fiction that shows the many ways in which today's men and women of science stand on the shoulders of giants.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars These Four Men Could Not Be Stopped, They Loved Science and Would Become Great Men, December 2, 2010
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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. This Philosophical Breakfast Club was in one regard, just one more club. The astounding thing was it was made up of four amazing men, men who did not look at their lives as something to overcome but simply loved science, loved learning and could not be stopped.

The Breakfast Club met to eat (obviously breakfast), gossip, laugh and drink, ("more ale than coffee was drunk"). They met on Sunday mornings right after chapel. Breakfast clubs came to be all the rage and professors disliked them for their apparent frittering away of the day in what they considered idle discussion.

This is a book to be savored, the research that the author, Laura Snyder, has done is extensive and the details add such a depth to the time period and to the character of these men.

This book is thoroughly fascinating if you are a lover of science.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Four giants in 19th century British science, May 10, 2011
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The period of the 1820's through the 1870's was a dynamic one in the history of 19th century British science. This book focuses upon four extraordinary individuals who did much to shape science and the scientific method during this crucial era: Charles Babbage (1791-1871); John Herschel (1792-1871); William Whewell (1794-1866); and Richard Jones (1790-1855). Coming together as young students at Cambridge University, in a series of breakfast meetings and discussions (hence the book's title), the group was determined to reform how science was conducted and the role of scientists--and to a great extent they succeeded as the book recounts, among other things setting the stage so to speak for the monumental impact of Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species" in 1859.

Each of the four central subjects is profiled throughout the book as they undertake their scientific careers. Their common emphasis was on a scientific method that was empirical, quantitative, and inductive, that resulted in practical benefits for society, while not being constrained by religion. Jones is the most unfamiliar, but he applied these techniques to the study of economics with lasting impact. The others were involved in astronomy, chemistry, physics, and about everything else scientific as perhaps the last great generalists who could cover a number of different dimensions simultaneously. Much of their impact came from their involvement in scientific organizations, like the British Association for the Advancement of Science (founded in 1831) which (as was typical during this period) brought interested individuals together for reading papers, conducting demonstrations, and publishing findings.

The author well integrates a discussion of how this new view of science impacted on religious thinking in the period before Darwin's bombshell "Origin." This is a familiar area for the author, since she has written "Reforming Philosophy: A Victorian Debate on Science and Society," and she handles it quite well. Was god like a mechanic, or a "divine programmer," who set up the universe to operate in accordance with universal physical laws, and left it to do so, or did he frequently intervene in the world to, for example, create new species? The group may not have agreed wholly on this issue, but they did agree emphatically that science and religion were compatible. It is interesting speculate on whether Darwin's interactions with Babbage got him thinking about the possibility of evolution.

I found Babbage to be particularly interesting. In effect, he created a mechanical computing machine that, had it been built, would have duplicated many of the facets of modern digital computers. Had this machine been built and utilized in the 1830's, imagine the impact it would have had. Among other things, members of the group developed photography, charted the world's currents, studied the earth's magnetic fields, charted the universe, translated Plato, worked on ciphers, and on and on. Truly an amazing and gifted group!

By the time of their deaths, science and "scientist" were recognized terms; an empirical and quantitative scientific method prevailed; the government was beginning to financially support science and it had achieved somewhat of an accepted role in the universities; international cooperation was developing; multiple scientific organizations were functioning; and London's "Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations" in 1851 demonstrated how science impacted on everyday life and activities. The modern world was just around the corner.

Though a long book at around 400 pages, the author's narrative never bores nor does it overwhelm those such as myself who lack a heavy scientific background. The author's 39 pages of useful notes and 16 page bibliography attest to the substantial research upon which the book is based. She knows this period well and the important issues that need to be discussed. 19th century British science is a treasure trove for those of us interested in intellectual history, as these four remarkable individuals attest. The author has unlocked the door to many of these key issues in this fine volume.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The invention of the professional scientist, January 9, 2011
By 
James A. Vedda (Alexandria, VA USA) - See all my reviews
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The history of science and technology is one of the most important and fascinating perspectives on how we became the society we are today, yet it is too often neglected in the teaching of history. Snyder illuminates us on a slice of that history, focusing on four men, and their extended network of colleagues and students, who shaped 19th century science in Britain in ways that yielded dramatic, widespread changes in the scientific enterprise that still affect us today.
William Whewell, John Herschel, Charles Babbage, and Richard Jones are interesting characters who are difficult to classify, since they started their careers at a time when science (or "natural philosophy" as it was known then) was a hobbyist activity in Britain and much of the world - no science degrees, no salaried research work, no grant programs or government funding channels, and only the early incarnations of real scientific societies. Herschel was an astronomer whose father (William) was famous in the same discipline; Babbage is best known for his work on calculating machines; and Jones would be called an economist in today's jargon. But this was a time when specialization had yet to occur. All of these men had multiple interests. Whewell, a mathematician who spent his career at Trinity College in Cambridge, is identified by Snyder as a practitioner of no less than 12 pursuits, and even did pioneering work in the worldwide mapping of ocean tides. The similarly versatile Herschel was also an accomplished chemist who aided the advancement of photography.
By the end of their lives, these men and those they influenced (including famous names such as James Clerk Maxwell and Charles Darwin) turned science into a serious, evidence-based profession that sparked larger, more coordinated, more specialized efforts and saw the first use of the label "scientist."
Some readers may find some passages to be more detailed than they might like, but I found this to be a fascinating, well-researched addition to the history of science, filled with characters I'd like to meet, particularly Whewell and Herschel.
For the story of another group of British colleagues who changed science and technology two generations earlier, see The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Are you invited to breakfast with the Cambridge Philosophers?, January 9, 2011
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Didaskalex "Eusebius Alexandrinus" (Kellia on Calvary, Carolinas, USA) - See all my reviews
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****
"Who would not want to be invited to breakfast with the young philosophers and scientists that Laura Snyder portrays so vividly and with searching imagination? Charles Babbage, ..., even as students at Cambridge, plotted the reform of science, which in the early nineteenth century hardly existed in the British universities." Robert J. Richards, Professor, History of Science, Univ. of Chicago

Cambridge Intellectual Clubs:
I have been fascinated with the history and philosophy of science since its flowering in Alexandria of antiquity, and followed Isaac Newton and his fellow alchemist Robert Boyle, 17th century Cambridge Platonist, to its philosophical clubs. John Herschel was one of the first to criticize the state of science in Britain, joined by Charles Babbage who thought the root cause of the problem was the lack of serious scientific research in England. To remedy such state of decline, they initiated the Analytical Society, while they studied in Cambridge. Their undergraduate club was aimed at moving beyond Newton's Victorian time to match Leibniz' calculus. The Cambridge Moral Sciences Club, that developed into a university tradition was devoted to the publication and discussion of philosophical papers. Keynes, Russell, Ramsey, Wittgenstein and Moore, among others have played a major role in the history of analytical philosophy, and the Moral Sciences Club continues its mission to this day.

The Snyder Breakfast club:
Four friends lived in a transition time of scientific stagnation and were enthusiastic for its advancement as promoters of its progress, and new bridge builders connecting science with religion.
Of the four club members, the Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy mentions only Whewell, remembered today for his voluminous works on the history and philosophy of science. In his 'System of Logic,' John Stuart Mill criticized Whewell's philosophy of science, over the nature of inductive reasoning, moral philosophy, and political economy. Alfred N. whitehead did not bother to mention Whewell in his book, "Science and the Modern World, 1925," which covered previous three centuries, and criticized him for failure to track language, philosophy's main tool, to its sources of difficulty, in his magnum opus, "Process and Reality, 1929".

While each of the four Cantab colleagues is a worthy subject in his own right, Dr. Snyder has conducted an elaborate research that extended into their personal lives, and their relations with friends and foes. She presented her insights into their personal attributes, sometimes with intimate and irrelevant details, while generally over emphasizing the impact of their contributions on science. The author articulates for the reader a renewed appreciation of this epoch, but I felt some unnecessary details became a distraction, and drove the manuscript size to double the attention deficit span of some critical readers like me.

Author Tom Standage wrote, "By tracing the careers of the four members of the Philosophical Breakfast Club, Laura Snyder has found a wonderful way not just to tell the great stories of 19th-century science, but to bring them vividly to life." Jeff, an Amazon Reviewer, voicing lay readers, critically observed that, "...the author doesn't know when to stop with incidental information not germane to her point. ...these side ramblings are a distraction... The book would have come in at a nice length without them."

R & B Club Author:
Fulbright scholar Laura Snyder, is an expert on history of Victorian culture and science, and president of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science. She is the author of Reforming Philosophy: A Victorian Debate on Science and Society.

History of the Inductive Sciences: From the Earliest to the Present Times (Cambridge Library Collection - Philosophy) (Volume 1)
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A social history of the life, work and influence of four prominent scientists in early 19th-century England..., February 20, 2011
By 
R. Neil Scott (Murfreesboro, TN USA) - See all my reviews
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Building upon her previous book, Reforming Philosophy: A Victorian Debate on Science and Society (University of Chicago Press, 2006), which covered the mid-19th century debates "about the nature of good science" by explicating the ideas of William Whewell and John Stuart Mill, Laura J. Snyder picks up where she left off with The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World.

Writing a detailed biography of any early 19th century scientist is at least a decade-long undertaking; to write a book examining four such scientists and then intertwining the stories of their friendships, professional achievements and the impact their careers had on the scientific establishment of their day and on the future, is an extraordinary undertaking. Yet, here we have such a book, where Snyder explores the life and career of Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell, and Richard Jones; four scientists who first met as young undergraduates at Cambridge in 1812, and then went on to illustrious careers that changed the future of scientific endeavor for their generation all that have followed.

One can't help but be partial to William Whewell's story, which is traced from his humble childhood where it was only through the intervention of a headmaster and parish minister that he was plucked from a life following his father in the carpentry trade. Recognizing his exceptional abilities, local townspeople help raise the monies needed to pay the young man's fees for tutoring and living expenses. His academic work is rewarded as the young man secures a place among the Cambridge student body to study math and science. There he meets and befriends Charles Babbage (the brilliant mathematician who later designed and built a machine that influenced the development of modern computers), John Herschel (whose geographic, mapping, and photographic expertise along with his discoveries in astronomy brought him great fame), and Richard Jones (whose economic theories influenced the development of economics as a discipline). All gifted, confident young men conspiring to change the nature, role and responsibility of science to government and their constituencies, the study of specific branches of mathematics, and, the scientific community and methodologies of their day.

There's a great deal of cultural history covered. One early, underlying theme is that of the growth of clubs among the British upper class and educated establishment. While their "Breakfast Club" they formed at Cambridge met on Sunday mornings after chapel, to eat breakfast, drink good ale and discuss Calculus - among other such topics - the academic administrators of the time frowned upon them. They criticized them as being simply another way for the young men to waste the day in idle discussion instead of spending the day engaged in serious reading and study.

Presently serving as Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at St. John's University (New York), where she was appointed in 1996, Snyder earned bachelors degrees in both Philosophy and in the History of Western Thought at Brandies University, and then went on to earn her M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from Johns Hopkins University. She is currently President of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science (HOPOS), editor of that association's scholarly journal (The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science), a Life Member of Clare Hall College, Cambridge, and has been a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, University of Pittsburgh, and a Mellon Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. At St. John's her teaching "focuses on the history of inductive reasoning, especially ways that discussions of induction have been embedded in broader debates about science and its role in society."

Some may find Snyder's book to be somewhat dense. By that, I mean that the author has done a great deal of meticulous research and left little out. Thus, this methodology and narrative strategy is reflected in a story told with such detail that it makes for slow reading. Still, it's an interesting and well-written story with an enormous amount of background information that adds a certain depth to readers' visual imagination.

While certainly a book that will take readers some time to get from cover-to-cover, it's a real gem for those passionate about the history of science, intellectual history, and exploration of the role of science in nineteenth-century England. Highly recommended for both undergraduate and graduate academic libraries.

R. Neil Scott
Middle Tennessee State University
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5.0 out of 5 stars Great insight into the development of state supported science, June 17, 2014
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W. Jamison "William S. Jamison" (Eagle River, Ak United States) - See all my reviews
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Through the intertwined biographies of this group of scientists and friends each who follow their own interests at the same time they share them with one another as a club they show how scientific progress gradually reached the point where state funding began to enter into support the studies because of the social realization of the great benefits promised by those developments. How many ships did you think were lost each year because of lack of an understanding of the tides?
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5.0 out of 5 stars Foundation of modern sciences, February 25, 2014
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This is an excellent and well researched insight into the start of modern "Scientists". It can be a a bit 'dry' with its through details, but the details are one of its strengths.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Great history of science, October 27, 2013
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This review is from: The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World (Paperback)
If scientific history and biography of scientists who have shaped the world that came after them is your thing, this is a great book. While it focuses primarily on the biographical aspects of the main historical persons (Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell, and Richard Jones), it also examines their major contributions to science and the travails of their work to get them accomplished -- Babbage's calculating machine, for example). A fascinating examination of four friends who came together at Cambridge, conceived of what science and the scientific could become and then acted to make it so. Highly readable and highly recommended.
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