Photos from TED Global 2012


Here are some photos of me in action on the TED main stage at TED Global!

TED Global 2012 Edinburgh

TED Global 2012 Edinburgh

TED Global 2012 Edinburgh

TED Global 2012 Edinburgh

“I Struggled to Put the Book Down” — Astrobites Review

A nice new review from the website Astrobites. I love how it ends:

“One might have thought Victorian men of science would be impossibly staid and boring—a misconception that The Philosophical Breakfast Club will surely dislodge in short order. I struggled to put the book down.”

TED as an Intellectual Adventure

This article in the latest issue of the New Yorker gives a pretty balanced picture of the TED experience. It does leave out, though, something that struck me so strongly during the five days I spent at TED Global: the raw, unfettered intellectual curiosity of the attendees—who could, after all, spend their money and time on a vacation in Fiji, but who choose TED instead. As someone who has spent many years attending academic conferences, I have to say I have never experienced this kind of openness to ideas from all areas, from people with no particular axe to grind or their own intellectual agenda to promote.

One point the author makes is that ideas are presented apart from their academic connections and references to other works. Fair enough—these are short talks, after all. But what he doesn’t mention is the way that the experience encourages the connection between different disciplines and approaches—which may not otherwise have occurred to most of us. Even I was surprised to find that the talks in my session—by a historian and philosopher of science, an artist running the Rhode Island School of Design, a computational architect, a quantum physicist, a researcher photographing light, and a behavioral economist—all could be seen as having a common thread. (Hint: the way that different ways of representing reality, especially art and language, are related to scientific explorations of nature.) It was a heady experience, one I am still learning from.

TED Bookstore Curated List

The eight guest curators at the TED Bookstore

The eight guest curators at the TED Bookstore

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the folks at TED asked me to be one of eight “guest curators” of the TED bookstore. I put together a list of thematically-related books, and the books–along with my short descriptions of them–were featured on the bookshelves of the onsite bookstore. Here is my list of ten books, along with my “curation philosophy:”

Electricity and Water: Who says they don’t mix?

Throw in a dash of technology, engineering or science, and end up with a galvanising read.

Over the past few years, I’ve been reading and lecturing about the invention of modern science in nineteenth century Britain. Water—the power it generates, as well as the challenges it poses to an island nation—and electricity played crucial roles in England’s rise to scientific and imperial dominance in this period. On my bookshelf now are ten books—fiction and non-fiction—in which water, electricity, or both are central to the tales they tell.


1. Waterland, Graham Swift
Takes place in the Fen country of East Anglia, in bleak marshlands wrested from the sea—a sea that wants the land back. Spanning 240 years, the book weaves a tale of empire-building, sluice-minding, eel reproduction, brewing, incest and madness, adding up to a thoughtful reflection of the nature of history and memory. Both history and memory, like the sea, are fluid and ever-changing. A magical book.

2. Remarkable Creatures, Tracy Chevalier
On the shores of the beaches of Lyme-Regis, a young woman named Mary Anning distinguished herself in the early 19th century as a talented fossil-hunter, discovering the first complete skeletons of the ichthyosaurus and plesiosaur. Her discoveries cast doubt on the prevailing views about the age of the earth, helping to make Darwin’s theory of evolution possible. Chevalier does a fine job of fleshing out the lives of Anning and her main champion, Elizabeth Philpot (real people about whom we know little) and setting their story in the context of science and discovery in the nineteenth century. Read more

“A Brilliant Book” — Story Circle Book Reviews

A wonderful new review by Judy King of Story Circle Book Reviews, a website devoted to reviews of books “by, for and about women.”

“In The Philosophical Breakfast Club, Laura J. Snyder has written a brilliant book. Pure and simple. It is the story of the birth of ‘the scientist,’ both the term itself, and the concept of a professional person dedicated to the scientific study of a particular subject. . . . The numerous accomplishments and contributions of the four men would be too many to list in a brief review of the book. Suffice to say that our world would bear no resemblance at all to what we are used to if they had not been so broadly engaged in the applications of science, as well as its study. . . . A highly engaging study.”

You can read the full review here.

First Reflections on TED Global 2012

I am in Amsterdam now, doing research for Eye of the Beholder, having traveled directly here after TED Global ended on Friday. I had thought I would blog throughout the meeting, but it was all so intense and non-stop that I preferred to just live it and reflect on it afterwards. Just a few thoughts now, and more later as they come to me.

It was a whirlwind of talks, social events, and chatting with new friends. Many of the talks I heard were mind-blowing in some way or another; I met a large group of amazing, intelligent, curious, and accomplished people; and the parties (and after-parties) were lavish!

By the time of my talk I was still nervous, but I had already seen that the audience is so receptive and eager to hear what the speakers have to say. As I climbed the stairs to the large stage after being introduced I felt so much positive energy washing over me. As I looked out at the huge audience I recognized many of my new friends, and saw how ready everyone was to hear my story about the philosophical breakfast club. It was so much fun to tell it, and the feedback afterwards was amazingly positive. What was thrilling was how fascinated this group of non-academics and non-historians were by the philosophical and historical story I wove for them.

Bruno Giussani introducing me on the stage of TED

Bruno Giussani introducing me on the stage of TED

You can see the description of my talk—and two photos of me while on the stage—on the TED blog here.

I’ll have more pictures soon, and—with luck—a video to share.

TED Bookstore

The eight guest curators at the TED Bookstore

The eight guest curators at the TED Bookstore

The folks at TED invited me to be a “guest curator” of the bookstore onsite during the TED Global meeting next week. The bookstore stocks books by the speakers as well as those selected by a few guest curators. I put together a thematically connected list of ten books (fiction and non-fiction) and wrote up small blurbs about each one, as well as a brief “curation philosophy.” I decided to go for a fun list that reflected what I’ve been reading lately and a few old favorites, rather than something more scholarly and mundane. I’ll post the full list and the connection between them next week during the conference. As a taste, here’s the first book on my list:

1. Waterland, Graham Swift
Takes place in the Fen country of East Anglia, in bleak marshlands wrested from the sea—a sea that wants the land back. Spanning 240 years, the book weaves a tale of empire-building, sluice-minding, eel reproduction, brewing, incest and madness, adding up to a thoughtful reflection of the nature of history and memory. Both history and memory, like the sea, are fluid and ever-changing. A magical book.

I’ve also been asked to do a book-signing for The Philosophical Breakfast Club in the bookstore the morning after my talk. The TED bookstore will be seeing a lot of me!

Notes on Preparing for TED Global

I have been preparing to take the stage at the TED Global conference—now only 19 days away, as the website helpfully reminds me! As it is for almost everyone who speaks at TED for the first time, this is a completely new challenge for me. One thing I’ve discovered in the process is that

No podium
+ No notes (or PowerPoint bullets)
+ Audience of 800+ people
+ Only 15 minutes
= Sheer Terror!

At least I know I’m not alone! As bestselling author Susan Cain described it in a lovely essay for the New York Times Book Review a little while back, at the speakers’ briefing the day before the TED conference she realized that “I probably wasn’t the only one trying to figure out how to get onstage without falling down or throwing up!”

On the more positive side, I’ve realized how useful this process has been for me. Not only has my practice with giving a talk without notes or any kind of crutch begun to make a difference in my other speaking engagements (and I’m sure it will perk up my teaching as well), but I have also found it to be intellectually invaluable. There has been a bit of an epidemic of TED-bashing lately (mostly by people who have not been invited to speak at TED conferences, I might add, or those who went but did not deliver stellar talks). But for me, whatever happens on the TED stage, it has been a wonderful experience in learning how to find the most important message in my own work, and to present it in a fully accessible—and brief—way. I’ve always believed that if you can’t explain your ideas to an interested and educated (though not necessarily specialist) audience—either your students or a general public—then you need to work on clarifying those ideas. Even complex scientific and philosophical concepts can be explained; perhaps not in all their specialist and technical glory, but enough so that others can grasp the nature of those ideas and why they are important. That belief has been underscored by working on my TED talk. And I would now add that anyone working on something that fascinates himself or herself should be able to come up with a 15 minute talk about why it is so fascinating. I hope I have managed to do that. We’ll see soon enough!

Happy Birthday, William Whewell (1794-1866)!!


William Whewell (1794–1866)

William Whewell (1794–1866)

On this date in 1794, the British natural philosopher, mathematician, all-around polymath (and inventor of the word “scientist”) William Whewell was born. I first heard of Whewell in my first year of graduate school, and it is no exaggeration to say that the event changed my life: it led me to write my two books, and indeed to change course in my scholarship, as well as helping to bring about my dream of writing books that people other than scholars would want to read.

The first time Whewell was mentioned in my presence was in a lecture on philosophy of science. Whewell was then mainly known (if at all) as the foil for the (now) more famous British philosopher J.S. Mill. Whewell and Mill famously disagreed about scientific method. Philosophers of Science would at that time routinely refer to Mill as the “winner” in their debate, the one who better understood how science actually worked, casting it as an argument between an inductive view of science and a non-inductive viewpoint, with Whewell in the role of the non-inductivist. I couldn’t help but wonder why a non-inductivist would write a book called Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences! This led me to an intense study of the two philosophers, which resulted in my first book, Reforming Philosophy: A Victorian Debate on Science and Society. I argued there that, in fact, Whewell was proposing an inductive, evidence-based scientific method, in the tradition of Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton. Mill was changing the meaning of induction by introducing a vision of inductive reasoning that held it impossible to have knowledge of anything unseen, such as the unobserved entities and properties part of any scientific law. Mill was the one who did not understand the way science worked.

Mill was not particularly concerned about scientific method; his massive and mostly misunderstood work, A System of Logic, was written as a political tract. The English author and critic (and father of Virginia Woolf) Leslie Stephen said the book was recognized by students of the time as being a treatise on the Utilitarian moral and political philosophy. In Reforming Philosophy I argued that Mill’s scientific method was meant to counter what he considered to be reactionary political and moral views—such as those he, somewhat unfairly, associated with Whewell. So in that book I examined not only the scientific and logical views of Mill and Whewell, but also their positions on moral philosophy, politics, and economics.

That interdisciplinary approach brought me back to my origins as a student not only of philosophy but of history, and particularly the history of thought. The research for that book also led me to a letter received by Whewell when he was Master of Trinity college–a letter that referred back to the “philosophical breakfasts” held in John Herschel’s rooms.

“Philosophical Breakfasts?” I remember thinking, “with Herschel and Babbage? Now this would make a great book!”

A few years later, I finally had the opportunity to write that book, and to write it the way it should be written—in an accessible narrative style. And since the publication of The Philosophical Breakfast Club, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to many people about Whewell and his friends, and the revolution in science they helped bring about. This relationship with Whewell has brought me to a wonderful place in my life. So, for selfish reasons, I celebrate his birthday today.

Talk at Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum

I so enjoyed my visit to Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. Although I lived in the Boston area for a number of years, I had never been, and it is lovely. I was thrilled to have a special tour of the grounds with landscape preservationist Maggie Redfern, who filled me in on the history of the grounds. The rain stopped just in time!

The azaleas were in full bloom!

The azaleas were in full bloom!

I also enjoyed my visit to the lovely library of the Arboretum—it was real a treat to see documents relating to E.H. Wilson’s plant expeditions in eastern Asia between 1907 and 1922. And my tour of the new Weld Research Center of the Arboretum was terrific—my interest was especially captured by their new, state-of-the-art 3-D microscope!

My talk on Wednesday night was well-attended and the Q & A was lively. Thanks to Ned Friedman, director of the Arboretum, and Pam Thompson, Manager of Adult Education, for the invitation and the hospitality!

Thursday I was thrilled to meet Sara Schechner, the Curator of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard. We had a great talk about early microscopes and telescopes. I’ll be going back to Harvard soon for some work with microscopes old and new with Sara and Ned.