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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
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This review is from: The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World (Hardcover)
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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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