The Philosophical Breakfast Club Summary and Reviews

The Philosophical Breakfast Club

Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World

by Laura J. Snyder

The Philosophical Breakfast Club

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Book Summary

The Philosophical Breakfast Club is a rich work of biography and history in the tradition of Richard Holmes's bestselling The Age of Wonder.  Laura Snyder, an expert on Victorian science and culture, has written what is, in a sense, a sequel to Holmes's book, showing how a small group of men working in the early nineteenth century made a number of significant discoveries and, together, brought about a scientific revolution.

The four principles--Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell, and Richard Jones--are relatively unknown today though their signal achievements are remembered. Charles Babbage was a mathematical genius who invented the modern computer; John Herschel mapped the Southern Hemisphere and contributed to the invention of photography; William Whewell not only invented the word "scientist" but also found the fields of crystallography, mathematical economics and the science of tides; Richard Jones shaped the science of economics. The four principals of the "Breakfast Club" met as undergraduates at the University of Cambridge in 1812. The Philosophical Breakfast Club tells the story of these extraordinary men, exposing the political passions, religious impulses, friendships, rivalries, and love of knowledge—and power—that drove them.

Drawing upon the voluminous correspondence between the four men over the fifty years of their campaign, the book shows how friendship worked to spur the men on to greater accomplishments, and how it enabled them to help create the modern world, in which science plays a starring role. 

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Each of the four figures is a worthy subject in his own right, and by combining their stories Snyder provides the right balance of biography and science." - Publishers Weekly

"The author skillfully weaves together the lives of her four principals with the science of their day." - Kirkus Reviews

"Snyder weaves a compelling, if occasionally meandering, 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, especially in three different areas." - The Daily Beast

"In The Philosophical Breakfast Club she draws an endearing - almost domestic - picture of four scientific titans, and shows how - through their very 'clubbability' - they created the scientific basis on which the modern world stands." - Judith Flanders, author of Inside the Victorian Home

"The four busy geniuses who inhabit Laura Snyder's wonderfully engaging book did not invent friendship or science, but by combining those pastimes in their 'philosophical breakfasts,' they managed to invent much else, from the very word 'scientist' to versions of the computer and the camera." - Joyce E. Chaplin, James Duncan Phillips Professor of History, Harvard University

"By tracing the careers of the four members of the Philosophical Breakfast Club, Laura Snyder has found a wonderful way not just to tell the great stories of 19th-century science, but to bring them vividly to life." - Tom Standage, author of A History of the World in 6 Glasses

"In this elegantly written book, Snyder has brought to life four of the most important British scientists of the first half of the nineteenth century…[She] tracks the intertwined lives of these four figures...while casting light on every facet of British science during their lifetime." - Bernard Lightman, Professor of Humanities and Director, Institute of Science and Technology Studies, York University

"Who would not want to be invited to breakfast with the young philosophers and scientists that Laura Snyder portrays so vividly and with searching imagination?... Science and the personalities who created it spring to life in Snyder's compelling biographical depictions." - Robert J. Richards, Morris Fishbein Professor of the History of Science, University of Chicago

The information about The Philosophical Breakfast Club shown above was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's online-magazine that keeps our members abreast of notable and high-profile books publishing in the coming weeks. In most cases, the reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author of this book and feel that the reviews shown do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, please send us a message with the mainstream media reviews that you would like to see added.

Reader Reviews

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Therese X. (CALERA, AL)

A Great Visit with the Philosophical Breakfast Club
In June, 1833, the British Association for the Advancement of Science met at Cambridge University in England with members from all over the world. William Whewell of Lancashire addressed the gathering and spoke out especially for astronomy as the”Queen of the Sciences” promoting “facts and theory” calling those who pursued these as philosophers of which he was pleased to be a member. A
strident voice from the audience, none other than the Romantic poet, Coleridge, called Whewell and his “philosophers” to task for using a term to which they were not entitled. They were doing experiments,so to speak “getting their hands dirty”. As a “real metaphysician” Coleridge no longer permitted them this noble term. Whewell, with respect, genially accepted that the word having being taken by a loftier group, his men would by analogy with the "artist", form the word "scientist". Thus a new word, and profession, was coined which would catch on in decades to come.

Along with William Whewell, who came from humble beginnings, were three other “scientists”, Charles Babbage, John Herschel and Richard Jones, a burst of discoveries and knowledge would change the nineteenth century to such a degree that
these four very different men from varied backgrounds would remain friends for over fifty years as a result of their friendships formed at Cambridge. John Herschel, son of a famous astronomer father, was also a musician who composed symphonies and discovered a new planet! The first mechanical computer, invented by Charles Babbage, described ingeniously by the author lead the way to our modern computer technology. Richard Jones ,a Welshman with language skills studied law but
became a minister instead and contributed more to raise what was called “political
economy” to the more legitimate science of Economics. These and many other inventions surrounded the four inquiring minds who were part of the fifty year surge of progress of their time that parallels the past fifty years of our own modern age. This multi-biography is well-researched and many-layered but remains a
fascinating read beyond the discoveries hinted at in this mere review. Especially on a cold winter’s night, it’s a pleasure to be transported back to a time that was thought to be slower and quieter but was real and dynamic, a great bedside companion or group discussion book for those who like their history and science blended with zest and humanity.

Marsha S. (Nags Head, NC)

The Philosophical Breakfast Club
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 affected them emotionally and personally. Since I spent my career in the Information Technology industry, I was particularly fascinated by the sections dealing with Charles Babbage, but the lives of all are intertwined and each of their ideas influenced the others.

This is not a book for everyone, and I found that I had to read it in small sections. Like a great meal as opposed to fast food, sipped and savored.

Lesley F. (San Diego, CA)

Our history book club will definitely read this
I loved "The Philosophical Breakfast Club" and our social history book club will definitely be reading it! It is right up our alley both because of our interest in science of the modern era and the social connections the author draws.

Suri F. (Durham, NC)

Dense and Fascinating
This biography of a friendship among four men at the birth of modern science is fully researched and well written. The author is skilled at conveying the breadth of curiosity and engagement with the world that her subjects had. Their cumulative impact on Twenty-First Century life is astounding. While hardly a "page-turner," this book held my interest throughout. I have been hunting down others to share this book.

Susan R. (Dublin, NH)

Connecting the Dots
The Philosphic Breakfast Club helped shape the modern world in which science plays a starring role. The PBC was four Cambridge students in the early 1820's who had long Sunday breakfasts together and discussed the role and methods of "natural philosophy", as science was then called.

This is a group biography--warts and all--of the life-long friends and occasional rivals who coined the term "scientist" as a parallel of "artist" and were the movers and shakers of science as it devleoped into something we recognise today. They were polymaths and prolific writers.

This is a very good book that connects the dots for anyone interested in history or science or the history of science.

Carol T. (Ankeny, Iowa)

Philosophical Breakfast Club
Every page reminds me of yet another person who would really enjoy this book. I may have to buy a peck of them for gifts this next year!! Historian, scientist, mathematician, economist, inquiring mind....there's something here to satisfy nearly everyone's interest.

...29 more reader reviews

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An expert on Victorian science and culture, Fulbright scholar Laura J. Snyder is also the president of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science. She is an associate professor of philosophy at St. John's University and the author of Reforming Philosophy: A Victorian Debate on Science and Society. Visit Laura on Facebook.

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