Sunday, April 17, 2011

Guest Review: The Philosophical Breakfast Club

Summary: 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. -- Broadway

I admit that THE PHILOSOPHICAL BREAKFAST CLUB: FOUR REMARKABLE FRIENDS WHO TRANSFORMED SCIENCE AND CHANGED THE WORLD by Laura J. Snyder probably isn't a book that I'd pick up, although it does sound interesting. So I guess it's a good thing that Booking Pap Pap decided that he wanted to read it. Here are his thoughts:

THE PHILOSOPHICAL BREAKFAST CLUB is an historical account of four men, Charles Babbage, William Whewell, John Herschel and Richard Jones, who transformed science in the nineteenth century. These men, inspired by the inductive methodology of seventeenth century Francis Bacon, met regularly during their time together at Cambridge University in 1812-13 to discuss all aspects of science in Britain and the world and philosophized on ways to improve it. These men remained lifelong friends and spearheaded the efforts that actually changed science from a part time endeavor to a profession where scientific methods and contributions to the betterment of mankind became the driving forces.  

Author Laura Snyder details for the reader the tremendous influence these men had on the sciences of their day as well as the future. For example, among the many achievements of these men, Charles Babbage is credited with the invention of the computer and refining cipher techniques; William Whewell invented the word “scientist”, founded the field of mathematical economics and the science of tides; John Herschel contributed to the invention of photography and discovered Uranus and Richard Jones redefined the science of economics. The author discusses both the private and public lives of these men giving the reader a great perspective of how they balanced both aspects.

Snyder fills the book with good stories and plenty of facts that provide a clear representation of the scientific, social and political climate of nineteenth century England. She addresses the history of economic thought as it moved toward a society responsible to assist its poor and comments on the labor and technology issues associated with the Industrial Revolution. Snyder also discusses the scientific-religious disputes of the time and points out the rare instances where women were active in the science community. Her stories on the original “penny post”; the controversy between a French and an English mathematician concerning calculations used in locating Neptune; and Whewell’s inspiration to Charles Darwin in forming his theory of evolution were most interesting.

If I had one criticism of the book, in some cases Ms. Snyder goes into too much detail in describing some of the scientific information. For example the discussions on Bacon’s inductive methodology were more than I could absorb. er detailed explanations of the Morse code and various ciphering techniques were quite laborious for me. 

Anyone with an interest in history or science will find THE PHILOSOPHICAL BREAKFAST CLUB a fascinating and challenging read.

Thanks to the publisher for sending a copy of this book and to Booking Pap Pap for another great review.


bermudaonion said...

If some of the discussion was too much for Booking Pap Pap, I know it would be too much for me. I don't think this one is for me.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I think my husband read this and felt the same way!