The Philosophical Breakfast Club:
Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World

by Laura J. Snyder



Random House, 2011. ISBN 978-0-767-93049-9.
Reviewed by Judy King
Posted on 07/03/2012

Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Nonfiction: Science

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. Prior to the mid to late nineteenth century, young men were educated in the sciences, math, philosophy, history, literature, art, poetry, languages—basically everything. Many went on to professions in one area or another, or, if they didn't have to work for a living, many more spent their lives as productive amateurs in fields that interested them.

The four remarkable friends Snyder writes about are William Whewell, John Herschel, Charles Babbage, and Richard Jones. Whewell (say "who-ell") is the actual coiner of the term "scientist." He did it by mashing together science with artist. (The term didn't catch on for several decades after he introduced it at a meeting held in 1833—"man of science," "savant," and "natural philosopher" were more commonly used at the time.) John Herschel was the son of William Herschel, who discovered the planet, Uranus, and the younger Herschel made many of his own contributions to astronomy, as well as helping to invent photography. Babbage designed the first computer, and Jones elevated the new field of "political economics" to a rigorous scientific specialty (now known simply as economics).

It would have been difficult to write about any one of these men without including extensive information about the other three, they were so well connected to each other throughout their adult lives. Snyder took the approach of following each man through certain periods in their lives and then overlapping the stories as they interacted with each other. There was considerable overlap during their years at Cambridge and for a time afterwards, before they married and developed family obligations. They spurred each other on in their separate endeavors and collaborated on establishing The British Association for the Advancement of Science (now known as The British Science Association), the third meeting of which was where Whewell introduced the term scientist.

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. From predicting changing tides on a world-wide scale, to decrypting coded messages during wartime, to charting the stars of the Southern Hemisphere, these four friends created a lasting legacy that continues to enrich our lives today. And they set the stage for someone else whose impact on science has only increased with the passage of time.

For years Charles Babbage had hosted parties that attracted between two and three hundred men and women from "levels of society usually socially segregated," according to Snyder. "Female members of the titled aristocracy played whist with the wives of experimenters and fossil hunters, while on the dance floor, the attractive young daughters of noblemen whirled with the unmarried scientists." He usually included in the entertainment a demonstration of his "Difference Engine," the computing machine he had designed and built on a small scale, but was never able to complete in a larger size.

As he described the workings of his machine to his audience, Babbage would compare the laws he built into the mechanism to govern its actions to the laws God imposed on the rest of creation—laws that released God from having to take a hand in every act of nature. This portrait of God was unconventional even within the Philosophical Breakfast Club. Whewell and Jones were both ordained ministers in the Church of England, and devout practitioners of that faith. But Babbage's view would soon come to dominate the scientific world. "And," according to Snyder, "he very likely planted a seed in the mind of one of his audience members, Charles Darwin, who at that moment was trying to reconcile his belief in God with his growing suspicion that species were not 'fixed,' that they in fact changed over time into new species."

This book was no light reading. I often had to take a break from it, even as interested as I was in the topic. But the pay-off came in Chapter 12, where Snyder expands on the subject of Charles Darwin and his efforts "to decipher the 'mystery of mysteries,' as Herschel had called it, the origin of new species." Snyder cites numerous ways that the members of the Philosophical Breakfast Club influenced Darwin. For instance, "He would design his book explicitly to meet the conditions for good inductive science that the experts of the day, Whewell and Herschel, had set out in their works...," and "Darwin respected the breadth and depth of Whewell's knowledge, calling him one of the 'best conversers on grave subjects to whom I have ever listened.'"

After reading the detailed description of how Darwin assembled the arguments that became his Origin of Species, it was easy for me to frame the rest of the book as background for that one group of pages. Which may have been Snyder's intent. Or not. I can see how this might have gone from a project writing a biography of William Whewell, or a brief summary of how the changing scene of scientific endeavor affected how Darwin carried out his research, to what undoubtedly turned into a massive undertaking. I applaud Snyder for getting all that information under control and setting it down in a highly engaging story.

Read an excerpt from this book.


Fulbright Scholar Laura J. Snyder, Ph.D. is a writer, professor, and international authority on the history and philosophy of science. She is a Life Member of Clare Hall College, Cambridge, and was the 2009-11 President of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science (HOPOS). Visit her website.

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