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The Philosophical Breakfast Club recounts the life and work of four men who met as students at Cambridge University: Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell, and Richard Jones. Recognizing that they shared a love of science (as well as good food and drink) they began to meet on Sunday mornings to talk about the state of science in Britain and the world at large. Inspired by the great 17th century scientific reformer and political figure Francis Bacon—another former student of Cambridge—the Philosophical Breakfast Club plotted to bring about a new scientific revolution. And to a remarkable extent, they succeeded, even in ways they never intended.
Historian of science and philosopher Laura J. Snyder exposes the political passions, religious impulses, friendships, rivalries, and love of knowledge—and power—that drove these extraordinary men. Whewell (who not only invented the word “scientist,” but also founded the fields of crystallography, mathematical economics, and the science of tides), Babbage (a mathematical genius who invented the modern computer), Herschel (who mapped the skies of the Southern Hemisphere and contributed to the invention of photography), and Jones (a curate who shaped the science of economics) were at the vanguard of the modernization of science.
This absorbing narrative of people, science and ideas chronicles the intellectual revolution inaugurated by these men, one that continues to mold our understanding of the world around us and of our place within it. Drawing upon the voluminous correspondence between the four men over the fifty years of their work, Laura J. Snyder shows how friendship worked to spur the men on to greater accomplishments, and how it enabled them to transform science and help create the modern world.
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