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.”

“Awakens the Reader’s Inner Spirit of Discovery” —

A terrific new review on the influential website

“For anyone interested in science, history, philosophy or engineering…this is a history book you will not want to miss. The author’s extensive research, wonderful writing, and passion for lifelong learning all serve to awaken the reader’s inner spirit of discovery.”

Read the full review here.

“Snyder writes with the depth of a scholar, the beauty of a novelist” — Science News

A wonderful review is coming out in the March 26th issue of Science News. “In a wonderfully crafted story, Snyder follows how the quartet helped to change the rich man’s hobby into a professional field with public responsibility.”

The review continues,

“This book is far more than a tale of discoveries. A philosopher of science, Snyder writes with the depth of a scholar and the beauty of a novelist. She connects personal and professional histories into balanced conclusions and poignant scenes, such as Herschel’s New Year’s Eve farewell to his father’s famous telescope, when he and his family gathered in the 4-foot-wide tube to sing a requiem before the instrument was closed up forever.”

Read the full review here.

Barnes and Noble Featured Selection

The Philosophical Breakfast Club is featured in today’s Barnes and Noble Review:

“If, like me, you loved Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men or Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder, prepare yourself for the pleasure of further intellectual pursuit in this lively group biography of four men—Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell, and Richard Jones—who met at Cambridge University and spurred each other on to pioneering achievements in crystallography, mathematics, computing, astronomy, and economics.”

See the feature here.

“Best in the genre” — Tyler Cowen

Economist Tyler Cowen has a nice notice of The Philosophical Breakfast Club on his website

“This is an excellent book about the history and status of science in 19th century England. If you enjoy the history of science, this book stands a good chance of being the best one in that genre to come out this year.”

You can see the full comment here.

Cowen quotes an excerpt from part of the book in which I discuss the great French table-making project, the 18 volume Tables du Cadastre (the tables for the French Ordnance Survey) which was supervised in the 1790s by the mathematician and civil engineer the Baron de Prony. For this immense project De Prony, influenced by Adam Smith’s discussion of the division of labor in Wealth of Nations, saw that a division of intellectual labor could be useful. De Prony’s project was an influence on and inspiration to Charles Babbage, when he began to think of a calculating engine in the 1820s.

Postponed: NYSL Event

The event at the New York Society Library, originally scheduled for March 10th, has been postponed until April 7th. I’m sorry for the inconvenience!

Interview with LA STAMPA

Today’s Tuttoscienze section of the Italian newspaper La Stampa has an interview with me about the members of the philosophical breakfast club. In it I discuss the changes they brought to science as a profession, and consider how the four men would feel about science today. They would have been pleased by the fact that there is international cooperation in research projects–something that they really spearheaded, with Whewell’s research on the tides and Whewell and Herschel’s active support of the international effort to collect meteorological and magnetic data. But they would have been dismayed, I think, by the growing chasm between science and religion, and science and general culture.

You can read the interview (and see some images of Whewell, Babbage, Herschel and Jones) here.

A Friendship that Revolutionized Science

I was recently asked what surprised me the most while writing The Philosophical Breakfast Club.  I think it was my realization that what had started out as a book about the power of ideas to change the world had become a story about a friendship that revolutionized science.

Read the full story here.

Happy Birthday, John Herschel (b. March 7, 1792)!!

In honor of John Herschel’s birthday, I would like to share this brief excerpt from the beginning of chapter 9, “Sciences of Shadow and Light.”

Thirty-three years after the fact, Margaret Herschel still recalled with photographic clarity the visit a friend of her husband’s had paid to Slough. On February 1, 1839, William Henry Fox Talbot took the new railway from London to visit John, bringing with him specimens of an ingenious method he had devised to capture images on paper. Margaret recalled that Talbot had shown the two of them “his beautiful little pictures of ferns and Laces taken by his new process.” He had produced them by placing leaves and pieces of lace on top of specially treated paper inside a wooden box covered with a glass lens, and setting the whole apparatus outside on the lawn of his estate, Lacock Abbey. The action of the sun on the light-sensitive silver chloride coating on the paper turned the areas around the objects a warm, dark brown, while the parts covered up by the leaves and lace were left a bright white–not unlike the effect of the potter Josiah Wedgwood’s jasperware, with its creamy white designs against darker backgrounds.

The problem, Talbot complained to the Herschels, was that over time the continued exposure to light would cause the images of the leaves and laces to turn a dark brown, just like the background, and the picture would be lost.  He had no way to “fix” the images.  Margaret remembered that her husband had said, “Let me have this one for a few minutes.”  After a short time he returned, and handed the picture to Talbot, saying, “I believe you will find that to be fixed”—and thus, Margaret proudly boasted, the problem of rendering photographs permanent was solved by her husband.

Herschel had, on this telling of the story, realized with a flash that experiments he had conducted in 1819 could provide the solution. . . .

“A Great Weekend Read” — The Daily Beast

The Philosophical Breakfast Club was designated a “Great Weekend Read” by The Daily Beast. “Snyder weaves a compelling . . . tale of the transformation of science in the Victorian era. . . . She leaves the reader with an inspiring sense of just how influential these men were in shaping our world and laying the foundation for major science and technological changes.”

Read the full review here.

I especially love how the author of the review highlights the enduring importance of these men in three areas: the issue of public funding, the collection and calculation of vast data sets, and the question of the relation of the arts and the sciences. As the review ends: “With Snyder’s book the call to action is clear: bring the arts and the sciences back to the breakfast table and raise a mug of ale in memory of the four Victorian scientists who changed the world.”