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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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