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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: #797,297 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Angie Boyter VINE VOICE on December 17, 2010
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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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.
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