Confessions of an Archive Rat

I admit it: I am an archive rat.  I just love to get in to a hoard of letters, diaries and notebooks from the past, especially when I know that not too many other hands have touched the material before me!  In writing The Philosophical Breakfast Club, I was so fortunate to have at my disposal the vast archives of Charles Babbage, John Herschel, and William Whewell, as well as numerous letters from Richard Jones (which are preserved in his best friend, Whewell’s, archive, which somehow seems fitting–even in death their papers are together). 

Since publishing the book, I have been asked by a number of readers about the experience of reading so many letters of my protagonists.  First, the practical details. 

Most of the letters are in these archives: the Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge; the British Library (in London); the Royal Society of London, and the Science Museum archives in Swindon (home of a railway museum and the largest UK outlet mall!). Once you have permission to visit these archives, you must request the bound volume (as in the Babbage collection at the BL) or the box of letters. The paper must be handled carefully, touching the ink as little as possible. The handwriting is very horrible–so hard to read. I rediscovered a passage recently from Eliot’s MIDDLEMARCH where it is noted that it was the mark of a gentleman to NOT have the clear handwriting of a clerk! None of these four men could be accused of that. I usually need a magnifying lamp, especially with Whewell’s handwriting. When I am away from the letters for a while, the first day back is usually wasted, as I try just to get used to deciphering the handwriting again! But there is no substitute for holding and reading these letters–the men and their time just comes vividly to life in a way that mere digital transcriptions could never fully convey. I feel so fortunate to be able to have had that experience. It is almost as if I was able to eavesdrop on their conversations–and I hope that sense is conveyed to readers of the book.

Some people wonder whether it is really important to see the letters themselves, for instance if there are digital transcriptions.  In the case of these four men, there are no complete transcriptions, but even if there were I would still have wanted to see the original letters. There are a few reasons for this.

First, I have caught errors in the transcriptions that do exist; this is not uncommonly the case with such bad handwriting! Second, the historian can learn, or at least make inferences from, certain physical features of a letter: how hard was the writing impressed into the paper at a given point (was someone angry, or at least emphatic?)? How many underscores are there below a word or phrase? What was added as an afterthought above or below a previously written line? Etc.

I can think of a couple of instances off the top of my head where seeing the physical condition of the letters was instructive. In one letter of the early letters between Whewell and a friend, letters in which they bantered rather boyishly about ladies, there is suddenly a paragraph that has been covered up with a dark paper and a glue so strong the paper would not budge (I only VERY gently tugged :). Given the previous paragraph, it is clear that the censored one is about a girl Whewell was involved with in some way. Whewell saved all or most of the letters written to him, even from his college days–so he must have felt it might one day be a collection others would want to see. Did HE, years later, censor this letter so that later prying eyes would not see, perhaps, how far his “flirtation” with Marianne had gone? Or did a surviving relative do so later, perhaps his niece, who also published some of the letters? To me, such details are the very stuff of history and biography.

I’m not saying that it is impossible to write good history without going through each and every bit of related correspondence in person. But when it can be done, it certainly, in my view, adds to the story the historian is able to tell.

Or maybe, it’s just that I am a real archive rat.

Last Night at the New York Society Library

I had a wonderful time at the New York Society Library last night. The library, New York City’s oldest (founded in 1754), was a perfect setting for a discussion of the members of the Philosophical Breakfast Club and their time. During the Q & A, a lively discussion about the gap between science and the rest of culture ensued. Audience members agreed with me that scientists could, and should, do more today to bring their discoveries and excitement about science to the general public.

It was a thrill to be invited to speak to a membership that has, in the past, included Washington Irving, J.J. Audubon, Herman Meliville, Willa Cather, Lillian Hellman, and W.H. Auden.

Here are some photos from the event: books for sale, and the brochure for the event. Stay tuned for photos of my talk and possibly the video the library took.

“Educational” “Entertaining” “Remarkable” — Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

A terrific review in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:

“Snyder skillfully combines biography with history of science. She has managed to produce an educational, entertaining, and never boring book that provides insights into some of the most remarkable episodes in the history of science. Especially remarkable is the ability of this author to paint an intuitive and lively picture of the diversity and richness of the natural sciences before Darwin. . . . The revolution for which Whewell and his friends were responsible . . . quickly became part of scientific routine, and its protagonists were, unjustly, largely forgotten.”

Read the full review (in German) here.

This Thursday: Book Tour Event, NYC

I will be talking about The Philosophical Breakfast Club, and signing copies, this Thursday at the New York Society Library (53 East 79th Street), at 6:30pm. I would love to meet fans of the book there!

Tickets are available at the door, or in advance by contacting Sara at events@nysoclib.org.

The library’s announcement is here.

“A gem” “Absorbing” — Paul Glister, Centauri Dreams

 

On his very interesting website, Centauri Dreams, Paul Glister discusses the 19th century debate over extraterrestrial life, focusing on the chapter in which I discuss this in The Philosophical Breakfast Club. It’s well worth a read, especially given the recent news stories claiming, then refuting, the discovery of alien microbes.

Glister also has some very flattering things to say about my book:

“The Philosophical Breakfast Club is a gem, and anyone interested in the history of science or the cultural realm of 19th Century Britain will find it absorbing. . . . [T]he four young Cambridge students would spend their lives looking for ways to promote and encourage the new science. Their rivalries, intrigues and passions in a lifetime of dedicated research take on vigorous life in Snyder’s expert hands.”

Read the post here.

“A Fascinating Story, Told with Considerable Charm” — Washington Times

A terrific review in today’s The Washington Times:

“A fascinating story, told with considerable charm. . . . In between careful explanations of their scientific explorations, Ms Snyder weaves in an account of life in the 19th century and the nonscientific lives of her four subjects; this is a story of friendship as well as science. . . . Writing the biography of four people at once is difficult to pull off, but Ms Snyder manages it well . . . [A] rich history behind the marvels of the modern world.”

Read the full review here.

“Popular Intellectual History at its Near Best” — Washington Post

A wonderful review by Michael Dirda of The Washington Post:

“A fine book…as wide-ranging and anecdotal, as excited and exciting, as those long-ago Sunday morning conversations at Cambridge. To me her book is an example of popular intellectual history at its near best. What’s more, The Philosophical Breakfast Club forms a natural successor to Jenny Uglow’s Lunar Men…and Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder.”

Read the full review here.

“An Intellectual Banquet” — The Objective Standard

A terrific review in the Spring issue of The Objective Standard.

“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 dramaticaly changed science for the better. . . . 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.”

Subscribers can read the full review here.

“Deftly recreates this age of marvels” — The Economist

The Philosophical Breakfast Club received a rave review from Tom Chatfield of The Economist and MoreIntelligentLife.com.

“Laura J. Snyder deftly recreates this age of marvels through the lives of four remarkable 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 reasoning.”

“Much of the delight of Ms Snyder’s telling lies in her eye for detail. . . . [She] gives flesh to her four remarkable subjects. . . . Ms Snyder does not spare colour in these portraits, which convey what it meant to be men of science at a time when ‘there was no graduate education in science, and no scientific careers to pursue.’”

“Ms Snyder . . . is a sure-footed guide to the mores and foibles of 19th-century Britain. From the pecuniary costs of living as a Baronet, to the insults meted out to brilliant females who dared to outdo men at mathematics, she holds up her mirror to an age at once startlingly modern in its hunger for knowledge and almost medieval in its weights of tradition.”

“The members of the Philosophical Breakfast Club left behind some lavish gifts. This volume offers them up delightfully.”

See the full review, including images of Babbage, Herschel, Jones and Whewell, here.

Bringing Science, History and Philosophy to a Broader Public

BookBrowse, a web “guide to exceptional books,” recommends The Philosophical Breakfast Club in the site’s March newsletter, based on pre-publication reader reviews.

I’m especially pleased to see that many of the reviewers consider themselves “non-scientific” or even “science-averse,” and yet they read and enjoyed the book. Part of my motivation for telling this story was to bring the excitement of science, and its connection to the rest of culture, to an audience which might not already appreciate this.

A number of my academic colleagues believe that it is somehow less scholarly, or “beneath” us in a way, to try to reach a broader audience, but I see it as part of my role as a teacher to share my love of science, history and philosophy with as many people as possible! And, if people are “science averse,” isn’t that in part the fault of scientists, and historians/philosophers of science, who have the ability to bring knowledge and love of science to people, but who have not adequately done so?

Of course, there are some who do this quite well; Brian Greene and Oliver Sacks come readily to mind. But I think more of us can, and should, bring science, history and philosophy to broader audiences.

I’d love to hear what others think about this.

See that BookBrowse Newsletter here.

Some excerpts from these reviews:

“Absolutely fascinating book about the birth of modern scientists. . . . Very readable book that even non-scientific people such as myself could relate to.”

“I loved The Philosophical Breakfast Club and our social history book club will definitely be reading it!”

“This extremely well-researched and written book goes beyond just an account of four extraordinary men and their accomplishments. It provides rich descriptions of their personal lives and the events that effected them emotionally and personally.”