Philosophical Breakfast Club featured in Nature

The Philosophical Breakfast Club appeared in the Books in Brief section of Nature, in the February 24th issue:

“Cambridge University has schooled many great scientists. Historian Laura Snyder explores the friendships between four men who met there in the 1810s: Charles Babbage, inventor of the computer, astronomer John Herschel, crystallographer William Whewell and economist Richard Jones. Inspired by their seventeenth-century forebears, including Francis Bacon, they founded a breakfast club, where they plotted to revolutionize science. Drawing on their correspondence, Snyder describes how they did just that.”

“The lives and ideas of these men come across as fit for ‘Masterpiece Theater.’” — Wall Street Journal

Today’s Wall Street Journal says, “Ms. Snyder…shows a full command of the scientific, social and cultural dimensions of the age. In Ms. Snyder’s telling, the lives and ideas of these men come across as fit for ‘Masterpiece Theater.’”

Read the full review here.

In the last lines of a very positive assessment of the book, the reviewer, a physicist, takes issue with two paragraphs in my Epilogue, where I suggest that as a result of the professionalization and specialization in the sciences brought about by the members of the philosophical breakfast club, there arose a greater divide between science and the rest of culture. I claim that scientists today are less able to “express that wonder [in the natural world] to others, even non-specialists” than people like Herschel and Whewell, who wrote important books about science aimed at a general literate audience, in addition to writing and translating poetry about nature.

That still seems obvious to me. Writers of successful popular books who are practicing professional scientists, like Brian Greene, are few and far between. I’d love to hear from other readers of the book on this topic!

Coming Soon…..

Photos from the book launch party at the Lotos Club Tuesday evening, and a very, very big review coming out on Saturday!

Publication Day!!

It’s publication day for The Philosophical Breakfast Club! If you have not yet ordered your copy, now’s the time! You can read it immediately on the Kindle, Nook or PC, or if you buy it from your local bookstore.

I haven’t yet seen the book out in a shop. Leave a comment below when you have seen it in a window or on the shelves of a bookstore! Thank you!

Readers will “Leap for Joy” — The Daily

A review in The Daily, the new magazine for the iPad, says that “Geeks, scientists, intellectuals, boys between ages 10 and 16 and all combinations of the above will leap for joy at Laura J. Snyder’s book. . . . We owe this quartet a lot (photography and mathematical economics, to start) and Snyder does a lively job of explaining why.”

Read the full review here.

A story told “confidently, stylishly, engagingly” — The Star Ledger (New Jersey)

A fabulous review in today’s New Jersey Star-Ledger says that “Snyder engagingly stakes out an era beginning with science as a hobby of vicars and the wealthy to its evolution as the engine of imperial growth, in no small measure due to the efforts of four who made common cause at breakfast.”

Read the full review here.

Live Radio Interview Monday

On Monday at 9am EST I will be talking about The Philosophical Breakfast Club live by telephone with Sean Moncrieff of Newstalk Radio, broadcast out of Dublin. You can listen in here.

“A Masterful Portrait” — New Scientist

A review in the February 12 issue of New Scientist calls The Philosophical Breakfast Club “a masterful portrait of nineteenth century science.”

The full-page review, written by Jonathon Keats, is titled Ham, tongue and Bacon (!).” As the title suggests, the reviewer was struck by the fact that at their breakfast meetings the men discussed Francis Bacon’s work and then spent their careers pursuing Bacon’s directive.”

I was so pleased that the author ended the review by agreeing with my claim in the epilogue of the book that there would be justice in looking back at the members of the Philosophical Breakfast Club for guidance on how to knit the sciences and humanities back together again.”

Keats writes, [Snyder] is right, and . . . the boundless curiosity the four shared throughout their lives—about absolutely everything—is surely a beginning.”

Read the complete review here.

Inventing the Scientist

It was June 24, 1833, at the meeting of the recently-founded British Association for the Advancement of Science. William Whewell (pronounced “who-ell”), a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and former professor of Mineralogy, had just finished a speech opening the conference. When the applause died down, the members were shocked to see a frail, grizzled man rise slowly to his feet. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the celebrated Romantic poet, had written a treatise on scientific method decades before. Coleridge had hardly left his home in Highgate for the past thirty years, yet he had felt obliged to make the journey to attend this meeting.

At that time, the practitioners of science were known primarily as “natural philosophers.” Coleridge remarked acidly that the members of the association should no longer refer to themselves this way. Men digging in fossil pits, or performing experiments with electrical apparatus, hardly fit the definition. They were not, he meant, “armchair philosophers,” pondering the mysteries of the universe, but practical men – with dirty hands, at that. As a “real metaphysician,” he forbade them the use of this honorific.

The hall erupted in a tumultuous din, as the assembled group took offense at the insult Coleridge clearly intended. Then Whewell rose again, quieting the crowd. He courteously agreed with the “distinguished gentleman” that a satisfactory term with which to describe the members of the association was wanting. If “philosophers” is taken to be “too wide and lofty a term,” then, Whewell suggested, “by analogy with artist, we may form scientist.”

It was fitting that the term was invented by Whewell who, along with three of his friends, transformed the natural philosopher into the modern scientist.