BOOK REVIEW: History behind modern marvels

By Laura J. Snyder
Broadway Books, $27, 448 pages

The scientific method and the respect accorded science seem so obvious now that it is hard to believe it could be any other way. Yet the conversion from what science is and what it was is a fascinating story, one told with considerable charm by Laura J. Snyder in “The Philosophical Breakfast Club.”

Ms. Snyder, an associate professor of philosophy at St. John’s University, centers her story around four figures who met when they were undergraduates at Cambridge University in the early 1800s. William Whewell, John Herschel, Richard Jones and Charles Babbage may not be well-known today outside of science historians, yet their meeting as young men would change the world.

Beginning around 1812 and lasting for much of their undergraduate careers, the four charted a course through a series of Sunday breakfast meetings in which they determined to “leav[e] the world wiser than we found it,” as one of them said. Drawing from the work of Francis Bacon, they envisioned a scientific research institute and public recognition of the work of science. This was a drastic departure for the time, when there was no scientific profession, and indeed, what we now know as scientific endeavors were merely considered hobbies of the rich or amateurish pursuits.

The four were indeed extraordinary. Whewell was identified as an outstanding intellect from the time he was a boy and rocketed through Cambridge to a fellowship at Trinity College. Babbage invented a usable “calculating machine” - a precursor of the computer. Herschel made advancements in chemistry, and Jones in 1831 made a name for himself with a book titled “Essays on the Distribution of Wealth,” using empirical evidence and the scientific inductive method. In between careful explanations of their scientific explorations, Ms. Snyder weaves in an account of life in 19th-century England and the nonscientific lives of her four subjects; this is a story of friendship as well as science.

In an 1833 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Whewell first used the word “scientist,” responding to a challenge from the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, no less. Coleridge represented the old guard, which conceived of science as one part poetry, two parts metaphysics with a little naturalism thrown in. The “scientist” would be different. A scientist would be bound by rigorous empirical standards and replicable results. The sciences themselves would constitute a body of knowledge separate from the humanities and also would constitute a profession rewarded for superior achievement.

The four men achieved the goals they set as young men. Science became well-established as a discipline unto itself. Public recognition was assured through initiatives such as formal university programs, private associations and public recognition such as the Order of Merit for contributions to the arts and sciences, instituted by Whewell’s student, King Edward VII. Yet paradoxically, the world they created would not have a place for men like them, who could move from chemistry to physics to geography to classical languages with ease; Hershel, for example, translated passages of Homer’s “Iliad.” Scientific specialties proliferated, and the ability to grasp current movements in all the sciences became a thing of the past.

Writing the biography of four people at once is difficult to pull off, but Ms. Snyder manages it well despite some repetition and asides that are not strictly necessary. These can be skipped without harm to the main story, or they can be enjoyed as part of the rich history behind the scientific marvels of the modern world.

Gerald J. Russello is editor of the University Bookman (

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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