Review: The Philosophical Breakfast Club, by Laura J. Snyder

The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World, by Laura J. Snyder. New York: Broadway Books, 2011. 448 pp. $27 (hardcover).


In The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World, Dr. Laura Snyder contrasts the early 19th-century man of science (or “natural philosopher”) with the modern scientist. Yesteryear’s men of science were usually wealthy (often from an inheritance), pursuing their scientific interests with no support from a government, university, or corporation. Their discoveries, though long used by kings and governments, were rarely regarded as something that could improve the lives of ordinary men and women. The men of science would hardly ever meet, and they would never debate the merits of their work or papers publicly. Unsurprisingly then, they had reached no consensus as to a proper “scientific method,” and no single process of reaching theories was upheld above any other.

The modern scientist, by contrast, is a specialized, credentialed professional who usually works for a government or university while conducting research. This scientist routinely defends his work from contemporaries in the same field, is answerable to the public, and is even seen as a social reformer of sorts, capable of dramatically improving lives politically, economically, or socially. On top of it all, he adheres to a standard account of the scientific method, even as ongoing debates about the specifics of that method emerge and are assessed.

Who or what accounts for the transformation of the field of science and of its practitioners?

The dominant thesis of Snyder’s Philosophical Breakfast Club is that the efforts and achievements of four Cambridge graduates, friends, and men of science—John Herschel, Charles Babbage, Richard Jones, and William Whewell (pronounced “Who-ell”)—are largely responsible for our modern conception of what it means to be a scientist. To support her claim, she presents a biographical account of their lives, discussing their scientific, family, and social lives as well as their goals, personal interests, and the social context surrounding them. Each chapter presents aspects of what the four accomplished (or attempted to accomplish), along with the contextual background necessary to understand the importance of their work. The result is a clear view of the social and scientific atmosphere in which these men lived, and an even clearer understanding of exactly what they wanted to change in the world of science, and why.

These members of what Snyder dubs the “Philosophical Breakfast Club” would meet on Sundays while still students at Cambridge, often to discuss the writings of the man they considered the true father of science, Sir Francis Bacon. Bacon’s exhortations, that “knowledge is power,” that scientific knowledge should improve the conditions of life, and that a new method of inductive reasoning was needed to form true theories and advance science, heavily influenced these budding scientists. The problem, as the Philosophical Breakfast Club saw it, was that Bacon’s advice had generally been ignored since his days in the 17th century, resulting in stagnation in the field of science. To correct this problem, they vowed to reform science in fundamental ways. Snyder argues that their goals were to improve upon Bacon’s method of induction, to disseminate this new method, to demonstrate how scientific discoveries could be used to benefit society, and to create research institutions that were publicly recognized and funded by governments. (Although government-funded science has proven to be detrimental to both science and freedom, these men arguably were not in a historical and philosophic position to predict these negative consequences.)

John Herschel (1792–1871) was an extraordinary scientist, widely recognized as the greatest in his time. Snyder shows Herschel to be an astronomer continuing in the tradition of his famed father, William Herschel, namely by painstakingly cataloging and reconfirming 380 of the more than 800 double stars investigated by his father as well as more than 2,300 nebulae. He also invented the astrometer, which could measure the relative apparent brightness of a star from the observer’s position. As a chemist, he became the cofounder of photography by finding a chemical means to fix, or make permanent, images created by William Talbot’s photographic device. His importance in the field of photography was further cemented by his being the first man to make a photograph on glass, as well as the first to use water as a means of fixing a photographic image on paper, and by his coining the terms “photography,” “positive” and “negative” images, and “snapshot.” In the chapter “Dismal Science,” Snyder summarizes Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, a successful book that clearly explained the scientific method to a general audience, presented a version of Bacon’s method of induction to the reading public, and thus inspired a new generation of scientists, including the young Charles Darwin.

Charles Babbage (1791–1871) was a world-class mathematician and an impressive scientist in his own right. In the chapters “Mechanical Toys” and “A Divine Programmer,” Snyder discusses how Babbage invented (but unfortunately could not complete for financial reasons) the first programmable computers, the “Difference Engine” and the “Difference Engine No. 2,” as well as the first truly general-purpose computer, the “Analytical Engine.” The importance of Babbage’s computing inventions should be duly noted, says Snyder. Unlike other mechanical inventions of his day that replaced physical power, his inventions were the first to replace mental labor, specifically to carry out mathematical calculations faster than any human, and without the errors to which human thought is prone. His mathematical genius and mastery of the science of statistics is displayed in Snyder’s chapter “Nature Decoded,” in which we learn that Babbage became the first to decipher a famed method of encrypting messages invented by Giovanni Bellaso in 1553 and thought to be “indecipherable.” After becoming an expert on the processes of manufacturing, he wrote On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, which expanded the science of economics beyond agricultural studies to encompass the study of industrial revolution factories. And, along with arguing that political economists should use the inductive method for their theories and conclusions, he presented what is now called the “Babbage principle”: labor costs could be cut by assigning high-skilled workers only high-skilled tasks, and leaving lower-skilled tasks to lower-skilled workers.

Snyder shows Richard Jones (1790–1855) to be an influential political economist who advocated induction as the proper method of political economy. (He is now regarded as the father of the English Historical School in the history of economics.) The chapter “Dismal Science” tells how Jones criticized the theories of the famous economists David Ricardo and T. R. Malthus. For instance, Ricardo described one adversarial sort of rent relationship between a landowner and his tenant as applicable to all places and times, and proceeded to theorize on the basis of this premise. Jones held this deductive approach to be absurd, in part because his comprehensive study of global history revealed five kinds of rent relationships, and proved that the interests of all classes of society are intertwined, not opposed as Ricardo theorized. Jones also tried to popularize the view that economic science should be designed not merely to make nations wealthy, as Ricardo held, but also to create a more just society. In the chapter “Mapping the World,” we discover that, as a result of his economic work, Jones succeeded Malthus as the professor of political economy at East India College and was instrumental in carrying out the largest government initiative in history at that time, which resulted in the complete mapping of rural England and Wales for the first time.

William Whewell (1794–1866) was a spectacular scientist who published works and carried out experiments in the fields of mathematics, mechanics, physics, astronomy, geology, mineralogy, and economics. At his prime, he was the master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and thus held arguably the most powerful position in the academic world in his time. In “Angels and Fairies,” Snyder points out that Whewell knew enough about the sciences of his day to write the three-volume History of the Inductive Sciences, the first systematic account of how sciences rose from their earliest beginnings, as well as the two-volume Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, which articulated the theory of induction he developed during his studies of the sciences. He coined the term “scientist” itself, as well as the geological epochs “Eocene” and “Miocene,” the physics terms “physicist,” “anode,” “cathode,” and “ion,” and the name for the science of the tides, “tidology.” His research into the tides, although it did not lead to a complete theory of predicting particular tidal motions globally, did lead to mappings of the Atlantic Ocean’s tides, showing how high tide from the deep waters of the ocean progressed to the shores of Europe and the Americas on an hourly basis, mappings that closely match even today’s computer-generated charts.

Through Snyder’s biographical approach the reader watches chapter by chapter as the Philosophical Breakfast Club, through hard-fought struggles, achieve many of their shared goals—some more fully than they thought possible. Whewell, as the master of Trinity and vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, paved the way for science to become a true profession by introducing a new final examination in the natural sciences, which eventually led to students being able to graduate for the first time with a degree in natural science. The four planned the first large-scale, international investigations funded by governments, including Whewell’s research into the motions of tides and Herschel’s magnetic research, which led to the construction of fifty-three geomagnetic observatories around the world. They were also instrumental in the growth of scientific societies, helping form the Astronomical Society, the Cambridge Philosophical Society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Statistical Society of London. Further, they were early advocates of the idea that scientists should constantly strive to increase the precision of their measurements and calculations. (For Babbage, this meant replacing fallible human processes with the flawless mechanical and steam-powered calculations of his Difference and Analytical Engines.) Whewell’s and Herschel’s works on the philosophy of science explained how the method of induction used successfully in one science (such as geology) could have beneficial effects if adopted by another science (such as economics). Both also presented a revamped version of Bacon’s method of induction as the proper method of science and drew public attention to this method, spurring the interests of budding scientists.

Finally, Snyder observes that all four members of the club used science to improve human life. Herschel, for instance, created the low-cost, cyan-blue photographic printing process that was the foundation for engineering and architectural blueprints. Whewell’s tidal research and mapping enabled the British Admiralty to publish tide tables for British ships to use, which were in turn distributed to many ports on the Atlantic, thus making it much safer to navigate. Babbage used his knowledge of manufacturing processes and mathematics to invent time-saving computers along with a mathematical form of cipher breaking that Snyder speculates might have contributed to Britain’s military strength and operations. Jones’s mapping of rural England and Wales helped settle disputes between landowners and the clergy, and greatly assisted the government in making commerce decisions, such as where to place new roads.

In “Epilogue: A New Horizon,” Snyder points to a problem in today’s science and society, which, she regretfully acknowledges, may have been an unintended consequence of the Philosophical Breakfast Club’s goals for science. They formed new, specialized scientific institutions, called for more precision in measurements, and promoted better methods in science. In doing so, however, they helped to further specialize the sciences, to the point where it became impossible for the ordinary layman, or even a scientific genius, to keep up with all the sciences. Whewell invented the word “scientist” in 1833 to replace the older term “natural philosopher” with a term analogous to “artist.” Ironically, says Snyder, doing so may have contributed to separating the professional scientist from the artist and the philosopher—and thus from the romantic wonder that often epitomizes these latter two.

The sense of wonder in the natural world, so well expressed by poets and artists, is somehow lost to the scientists themselves who examine that world; and when scientists cannot express that wonder to others, even nonspecialists, fewer children will dream of leading a scientific life, and that life will continue to become more and more detached from the lives of people, and the practical problems that need solving. (p. 367)

For the solution to this problem, Snyder suggests looking into the lives of the Philosophical Breakfast Club members:

There would be justice in looking back at the members of the Philosophical Breakfast Club for guidance on how to knit the two cultures back together again—to help us find a way to bring humanity back into science, and scientific wonder back into our everyday experience of the world. (p. 368)

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. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of science, the theories of scientific method, Victorian age England, the history of computers, the philosophy of induction, friendship among scientists, or the underappreciated scientists Charles Babbage and Richard Jones. Above all, I recommend this book to anyone familiar with the sense of romantic wonder that connected 19th-century philosophy, science, and art, and who wants to reclaim it for himself today.

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