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. . . .

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