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The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World

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  • Posted March 29, 2012

    Although the book does contain some analyses of specific threads

    Although the book does contain some analyses of specific threads of inventiveness (for example, in the development of photography) Laura Snyder's The Philosophical Breakfast Club aims somewhat higher - at uncovering those individuals responsible for the paradigm shift between the deductive "natural philosophy" of intellectual dilatants and the profession of inductive scientist as we know it today. The book focuses on four members of an informal, early 19th century "Breakfast Club" - William Whewell, Charles Babbage, John Herschel and Richard Jones - who, while undergraduates at Trinity College, Cambridge set out to reform the practice of science at that fundamental level, and who remained lifetime friends despite periods of profound conflict and disappointment.
    The period from the Enlightenment to the early twentieth century marks a major transition in intellectual practice - the emergence of scientific disciplines and the compartmentalization of science practice; the divorce of religion from science; the growth and maturity of government support for science; the democratization of science; an increasing dependence of science on mathematics; etc., etc. To what extent are the four main characters in this book responsible for that transition? The verdict is mixed.
    Among the four, Whewell stands out as exemplifying all of the currents that transformed the practice of science during the 19th century. A house carpenter's son, he rose to the highest position of intellectual achievement - Don of Trinity College, Cambridge. It could easily be claimed that Whewell was the last of the breed of universal philosophers in the tradition of DaVinci and Newton - master mathematician, poet, chemist, artist, physicist, moral philosopher, geologist, engineer, etc. Snyder makes a good case for Whewell's responsibility for both the lexicon of modern science (he coined the word scientist, itself) and its philosophy - inductive science in the service of improving all humankind.
    The case is less strong for the other three members of the Club, although each was a towering intellect. Herschel, son of the astronomer who discovered Uranus, made major contributions to astronomy in his own right. A brilliant chemist as well, Herschel did much to advance the development of photography. The legacy of Charles Babbage, wealthy and mercurial, is inextricably linked to his Difference and Analytical Engines - mechanical computers that, alas, remained little more than drawing-board concepts during his lifetime. Did his ideas really influence the development of the modern digital computer? Not likely. Richard Jones, a Welchman of modest means, was a cleric who, among the four, may have contributed the most to moral development (well after his time) with his writings on political economy. However, even the author of The Philosophical Breakfast Club, admits that his impact during the 19th century was eclipsed by contrary social theories such as those of Ricardo and Marx.
    The Philosophical Breakfast Club is a very ambitious undertaking - the lifetime accomplishments of even one of the Club's four were prodigious. Laura Snyder is outstandingly successful in bringing the details of 19th-century intellectual development to life while holding all apiece in a cohesive pattern.
    Richard R. Pardi Environmental Science William Paterson University

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 31, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Well researched history of science book

    In many ways, this book is reminiscent of and a good follow-up to "Calculus Wars". The author does an good job of setting the historical context and of describing the relationship between these four giants of 19th century science. Clearly meant for a general audience, I would have liked a bit more scientific content to illustrate their individual contributions.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 6, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Science should imitate neither ant nor spider, but the bee. (Francis Bacon)

    The scientific methods of two great men of Cambridge University: Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon were re-formulated and re-applied in the 19th Century by four Cambridge students. The four friends were Charles Babbage, William Herschel, Richard Jones and William Whewell. THE PHILOSOPHICAL BREAKFAST CLUB is their story. *** Although the book is long, complex and refers to 25 or 30 distinct objects of science and technology (e.g. optics, meteorology, computing machines, tides, telescopes, etc.) the author's imposed structure, though debatable, is simple and easily stated. Professor Snyder describes five or six key ideas expressed in the principal works of Sir Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626). She then has us imagine Babbage, Herschel, Jones and Whewell discussing those Sunday after Sunday from late 1812 until Spring 1813. They then resolve in a sort of teamwork to apply Bacon's ideas and models to British and European science. The rest of the text details the impressive Baconian achievements of the four friends. *** Bacon's ideas are presented in six pages of Chapter 2, "Philosophical Breakfasts." Bacon's two main sources cited are GREAT INSTAURATION (Renewal) - including the NOVUM ORGANUM (1620) and his "exploration genre" novel NEW ATLANTIS (published 1627). His ideas: "a revolution of thought and action" ... "science should help transform the condition of life" ... "knowledge is power ... meaning that by understanding nature, man would have the power to take control of the natural world in order to bring about improvements necessary for society." *** A fresh start was needed. Aristotle as narrowly understood in the Middle Ages must go. There is more to thinking than analytical reasoning from premises to conclusions. People must learn to think like Bacon: inductively, reasoning from facts to hypotheses and testing theories by their predictive power. Observe the real world. Record data accurately and precisely. Notice instances of light that is not hot. Do not be like the spider that "spins webs out of his own substance." Go, as well, beyond the ant, noted for gathering facts but creating no explanatory theories. Imitate the bee. It collects pollen. It digests pollen. The bee then makes something new: honey. *** Do not consider science and religion to be in opposition. God created two books, the Bible and the works of nature. Read and reverence both books. *** Reward men of science. Do not just give them prizes after they have found a solution (as would one day be done for "longitude calculation"). But give men and women honors, benefits, pensions for research and for simply pledging to try to solve problems. England needs a new kind of scientific institution. Bacon sketched it in NEW ATLANTIS: Solomon's House. In Solomon's House some fellows go forth on voyages to explore. Some review experiments already recorded in books. Some redo the experiments. Some create hypotheses to explain the facts. Others propose theories subject to verification or falsification. *** The rest of the book shows the four friends over the next 60 years "Baconizing" a world already or soon to be teeming with inventions (steam engines, punch-card fed silk looms, steamboats, electricity, telegraph, photography) and theories (evolution of species, natural selection, survival of the fittest, Malthusianism). A grand romp through 19th century science, mathematics and biography. -OOO-

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 24, 2013

    I assumed when reading the book description and reviews that thi

    I assumed when reading the book description and reviews that this was certainly a book for me. I LOVE non-fiction accounts of inventors/geniuses, &c But I found the writing to be extremely dry and the achievements, though ought to have been enough to keep me reading, were not captivating in the author's hands.  Too bad, I am indeed impressed with the subjects, but Ms Snyder does not do them justice. I give it three stars for the topic, not the writing.  

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  • Posted March 29, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    This book is just brilliant! Not only is it exceptionally well-w

    This book is just brilliant! Not only is it exceptionally well-written, but it is also a wonderful historical narrative on the history of "scientist" and the field surrounding it. It's amazing how much a person or a small group of people can change the course of history. I highly recommend this book.

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