The Philosophical Breakfast Club

The Philosophical Breakfast Club

Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World

Book - 2011
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Random House, Inc.
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.

Baker & Taylor
Traces the influential friendship of William Whewell, Charles Babbage, John Herschel and Richard Jones, citing their pivotal contributions to a significant array of scientific achievements throughout the mid-19th century.

Book News
An expert on Victorian science and culture, Snyder (Philosophy, St. John's University) presents the surprisingly engrossing story of four men--Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell, and Richard Jones--who met as students at Cambridge University, and then went on to have a tremendous effect of the development of science in the 19th century. Meeting for decades in a kind of Sunday brunch, the four talked about the then-current state of science and about the best ways to conduct scientific research. Drawing on five decades of letters between the men, Snyder shows how they helped to change the "natural philosopher" into the modern scientist, and (not so incidentally) helped found the disciplines of crystallography, mathematical economics, and modern computing, and make major contributions to astronomy and photography. Packed with good stories and anecdotes, as well with as good science and history, this is a book that can reach out to readers who would not ordinarily be interested in reading about the lives of four British scientists who, other than Babbage, are largely forgotten. Annotation ©2011 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

& Taylor

Traces the influential friendship of William Whewell, Charles Babbage, John Herschel, and Richard Jones, citing their pivotal contributions to a significant array of scientific achievements throughout the mid-nineteenth century.

Publisher: New York : Broadway Books, c2011
Edition: 1st ed
ISBN: 9780767930482
Branch Call Number: 509.2 SNY
Characteristics: 439 p. : ill., map ; 25 cm


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Mar 03, 2018

If one person can change the world, four might do 16 times as much. This is the story of Charles Babbage, William Herschel, William Whewell, and Richard Jones. They met at Cambridge about 1810. By 1860, through their hard work and consistent focus, modern science acquired the inductive method and public involvement (and government funding), that resulted in science evolving from a hobby to a profession.

Charles Babbage launched the first assault, making his work a personal crusade against the establishment. "Reflections on the Decline of Science in England" (1830) severely criticized the Royal Society in general and its leaders in particular for creating a social environment inhospitable to professional science, Richard Jones began by addressing economics with "An Essay on the Distribution of Wealth," and on the "Source of Taxes" (1831). It was necessary to begin there because economics in particular was mired in error through rationistic, deductive theories from Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo. Jones demonstrated with statistics - also a new development - that life was getting better, not worse, even for the poorest. Whewell wrote "History of the Inductive Sciences" (1837) and "Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences" (1840). Herschel's "Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy" (1840) was the introductory volume of Dionysius Lardner's "Cabinet Cyclopoedia." His 1859 work, "Physical Geography," was part of the "Encyclopedia Britannica."

Snyder writes well. The book is engaging, compelling, sometimes challenging. We accept that science proceeds by paradigm shifts, but the advent of modern science was itself a radical redefinition. At the start of the 19th century, what we call “science” was “natural philosophy” and its practitioners were philosophers. It was at the first meeting of the British Association of the Advancement of Science on June 24, 1833, that William Whewell answered a challenge from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and spontaneously offered the word “scientist.”

More to the point, natural philosophy was pursued by people of leisure, most often men, of course, but also the exceptional woman. No university offered a doctorate in science – only the doctor of philosophy. Though they demanded knowledge of mathematics, baccalaureate examinations did not test for science. By 1860, that changed. These four men made that happen. This is their story.

Babbage, Jones, Whewell, and Herschel endorsed the inductive method of Francis Bacon. This was not the so-called "strong induction" of Karl Popper and the problem of the black swan which holds that final truth is always elusive because some new discovery will invalidate all we know. Rather, they wrote books and articles about an objective scientific method that begins with observations. Observations become inductive generalities. Those broad descriptions must be fit to a natural law, a deductive truth. However, knowledge does not proceed from pure deduction independent of experience.

Charles Babbage, William Whewell, William Herschel, and Richard Jones fell out with each other after 50 years largely over religious interpretation. Everyone accepted that species come and go. The fossils that were revealed first by coal mining then by canal building established that. Does God create each new species? Babbage the computer maker said that God made a programmable universe that changes its actions according to a scheme invented once and left to run: "the divine clockmaker" of the Enlightenment. They had a hard time giving up the idea of God. Darwin - a frequent guest of Babbage's - eventually did.


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