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