Title: The Philosophical Breakfast Club
Author: Laura J. Snyder
Publisher: Broadway Books
Review by Bob Lane
Scientist is an honorific term today, applied to that group of thinkers and researchers we look to for information about mundane and arcane topics. We hear these scientists quoted as authorities on everything from the nature of the universe to the efficacy of pain killing drugs; we read about the breakthroughs in medical research that promise to provide cures for deadly diseases, and see actors pretending to be scientists who are pushing products for whiter teeth, harder abs, colourful hair and the like. We marvel at the work done with the Hubble telescope, the international space station, and the Large Hadron Collider as the scientists attempt to solve the basic questions about matter while searching for the elusive Higgs boson, the so-called Holy Grail of particle physics. Finding it might help explain why protons and neutrons weigh 100 times more than the quarks they’re made of, what dark matter is, and how the universe came to exist.
Everyone knows that science is difficult and that scientists are smart. We also tend to believe they have been doing science for a long time. But, as Snyder points out in the first pages of this extraordinary book, science as a unique subject matter in universities, and scientist as the word to describe these practitioners is a fairly recent affair. “On June 24, 1833, the British Association for the Advancement of Science convened its third meeting” in Cambridge, and at that meeting William Whewell suggested to the eight hundred fifty-two members of the society that those pursuing topics of study in the world of nature should from that time on be called “scientists”, a word he chose because of its analogy with “artist.” Coleridge was in the audience and had criticised the term “natural philosopher” as one used to describe the new breed of naturalists who were digging in the earth for fossils, looking at the skies through powerful telescopes, and searching at the microscopic level for all sorts of interesting critters. He wanted to reserve that term for the more contemplative arm chair practitioners. And so, on June 24, 1833, the word scientist entered the lexicon.
Snyder tells the story of “four remarkable friends who transformed science and changed the world” – Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell, and Richard Jones – nineteenth century friends who set out to make science a real discipline following the suggestions of the great seventeenth science advocate, Francis Bacon. The four met as students at Cambridge University, shared a love for science, and began to meet on Sunday mornings to talk about the how science could be nurtured in the UK and around the world. Snyder takes us from the early meetings through the careers and marriages of the four and to the end of their amazing lives. The narrative sparkles with personal details, political fights, love, brilliant discoveries, hard work, science and math always focussing on the four protagonists of the story.
Here is a selection of review quotes harvested from the internet:
“It is too easy to think that ‘science’ is what happens now, that modernity and scientific thought are inseparable. Yet as Laura Snyder so brilliantly shows in this riveting picture of the first heroic age, the nineteenth century saw the invention of the computer, of electrical impulses, the harnessing of the power of steam – the birth of railways, statistics and technology. In ‘The Philosophical Breakfast Club’ she draws an endearing – almost domestic – picture of four scientific titans, and shows how – through their very ‘clubbability’ – they created the scientific basis on which the modern world stands.”
–Judith Flanders, author of Inside the Victorian Home
“Smoothly and meticulously tells this complicated story of intellectual revolution and triumph in Victorian England… provides much interesting social and historic detail.”
—The Providence Journal
“The scientific method and the respect accorded science seem so obvious now that it is hard to believe it could be any other way. Yet the conversion from what science is and what it was is a fascinating story, one told with considerable charm by Laura J. Snyder in The Philosophical Breakfast Club.”
“Laura J. Snyder deftly recreates this age of marvels through the lives of four remarkable Victorian men. In doing so, she tells a greater tale of the rise of science as a formal discipline, and the triumph of evidence-based methods of inductive reason…Much of the delight of Ms. Snyder’s telling lies in her eye for details…a sure-footed guide to the mores and foibles of 19th-century Britain…The members of the Philosophical Breakfast Club left behind some lavish gifts. This volume offers them up delightfully.”
“Fulbright scholar and historian Laura J. Snyder plunges confidently and stylishly…Snyder engagingly stakes out an era beginning with science as a hobby of vicars and the wealthy to its evolution as the engine of imperial growth.”
“Geeks, scientists, intellectuals will leap for joy at Laura J. Snyder’s book, which tells the tale of four Victorian men of Science.”
“A philosopher of science, Snyder writes with the depth of a scholar and the beauty of a novelist.”
”If wonder and humanity do return to science, wonderful biographical works such as Snyder’s Philosophical Breakfast Club will no doubt have played a part.
The Philosophical Breakfast Club is an intellectual banquet, recounting myriad thought-provoking scientific discoveries, and sufficiently detailed to convey the kind of environment these men lived in and how they dramatically changed science for the better. Snyder’s extensive bibliography attests to the painstaking effort she put into this work, and the result is an entertaining and enlightening journey through the Victorian age filled with scores of interesting scientists besides the Philosophical Breakfast Club, many of whom, given their contributions to science and human life, deserve their own biographies.”
—The Objective Standard
“The author’s extensive research, wonderful writing, and passion for lifelong learning all serve to awaken the reader’s inner spirit of discovery.”
”Engrossing…Packed with good stories and anecdotes, as well as with good science and history.”
”A striking account of how a few bold individuals catalyzed profound social change.”
“Snyder captures not only the scientific ambitions of the foursome, but also the dynamics of their youthful friendship.”
—The Chronicle of Higher Education
”An accessible and engaging read on the origins of Victorian science, its personalities, and the cultural contribution made by these four men, this will appeal to readers interested in Victorian science, biographies, astronomy, chemistry, the religion vs. science debate, Darwin, computers, and a smorgasbord of related sciences.”
“The four busy geniuses who inhabit Laura Snyder’s wonderfully engaging book did not invent friendship or science, but by combining those pastimes in their “philosophical breakfasts,” they managed to invent much else, from the very word “scientist” to versions of the computer and the camera.”
–Joyce E. Chaplin, James Duncan Phillips Professor of History, Harvard University
”By tracing the careers of the four members of the Philosophical Breakfast Club, Laura Snyder has found a wonderful way not just to tell the great stories of 19th-century science, but to bring them vividly to life.”
–Tom Standage, author of A History of the World in 6 Glasses
”In this elegantly written book, Snyder has brought to life four of the most important British scientists of the first half of the nineteenth century…[She] tracks the intertwined lives of these four figures—their loves, their personal successes, and their devastating failures–while casting light on every facet of British science during their lifetime…Snyder relies on sound scholarship without losing sight of what makes these men so fascinating.”
–Bernard Lightman, Professor of Humanities and Director, Institute of Science and Technology Studies, York University
”Who would not want to be invited to breakfast with the young philosophers and scientists that Laura Snyder portrays so vividly and with searching imagination? Charles Babbage, William Whewell, John Herschel, and Richard Jones, even as students at Cambridge, plotted the reform of science, which in the early nineteenth century hardly existed in the British universities. As they attained intellectual and institutional power, they continued their efforts, often working through elite social networks. At exquisite dinner parties, for instance, Babbage would demonstrate his new invention, the analytical engine, a forerunner of the modern computer, and therewith beguile the young Charles Darwin just back from his Beagle voyage. Science and the personalities who created it spring to life in Snyder’s compelling biographical depictions.”
–Robert J. Richards, Morris Fishbein Professor of the History of Science, University of Chicago
The book is scholarly, brilliantly written, interesting to read, and an absorbing narrative of science, philosophy, and ideas – always rooted in a particular time and place and populated by the great British scientists that emerged from the Victorian age.
Bob Lane is a Professor Emeritus in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.