“Popular Intellectual History at its Near Best” — Washington Post

A wonderful review by Michael Dirda of The Washington Post:

“A fine book…as wide-ranging and anecdotal, as excited and exciting, as those long-ago Sunday morning conversations at Cambridge. To me her book is an example of popular intellectual history at its near best. What’s more, The Philosophical Breakfast Club forms a natural successor to Jenny Uglow’s Lunar Men…and Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder.”

Read the full review here.

“An Intellectual Banquet” — The Objective Standard

A terrific review in the Spring issue of The Objective Standard.

“If wonder and humanity do return to science, wonderful biographical works such as Snyder’s Philosophical Breakfast Club will no doubt have played a part. The Philosophical Breakfast Club is an intellectual banquet, recounting myriad thought provoking scientific discoveries, and sufficiently detailed to convey the kind of environment these men lived in and how they dramaticaly changed science for the better. . . . An entertaining and enlightening journey through the Victorian age filled with scores of interesting scientists besides the Philosophical Breakfast Club, many of whom, given their contributions to science and human life, deserve their own biographies.”

Subscribers can read the full review here.

“Deftly recreates this age of marvels” — The Economist

The Philosophical Breakfast Club received a rave review from Tom Chatfield of The Economist and MoreIntelligentLife.com.

“Laura J. Snyder deftly recreates this age of marvels through the lives of four remarkable men. In doing so, she tells a greater tale of the rise of science as a formal discipline, and the triumph of evidence-based methods of inductive reasoning.”

“Much of the delight of Ms Snyder’s telling lies in her eye for detail. . . . [She] gives flesh to her four remarkable subjects. . . . Ms Snyder does not spare colour in these portraits, which convey what it meant to be men of science at a time when ‘there was no graduate education in science, and no scientific careers to pursue.’”

“Ms Snyder . . . is a sure-footed guide to the mores and foibles of 19th-century Britain. From the pecuniary costs of living as a Baronet, to the insults meted out to brilliant females who dared to outdo men at mathematics, she holds up her mirror to an age at once startlingly modern in its hunger for knowledge and almost medieval in its weights of tradition.”

“The members of the Philosophical Breakfast Club left behind some lavish gifts. This volume offers them up delightfully.”

See the full review, including images of Babbage, Herschel, Jones and Whewell, here.

Bringing Science, History and Philosophy to a Broader Public

BookBrowse, a web “guide to exceptional books,” recommends The Philosophical Breakfast Club in the site’s March newsletter, based on pre-publication reader reviews.

I’m especially pleased to see that many of the reviewers consider themselves “non-scientific” or even “science-averse,” and yet they read and enjoyed the book. Part of my motivation for telling this story was to bring the excitement of science, and its connection to the rest of culture, to an audience which might not already appreciate this.

A number of my academic colleagues believe that it is somehow less scholarly, or “beneath” us in a way, to try to reach a broader audience, but I see it as part of my role as a teacher to share my love of science, history and philosophy with as many people as possible! And, if people are “science averse,” isn’t that in part the fault of scientists, and historians/philosophers of science, who have the ability to bring knowledge and love of science to people, but who have not adequately done so?

Of course, there are some who do this quite well; Brian Greene and Oliver Sacks come readily to mind. But I think more of us can, and should, bring science, history and philosophy to broader audiences.

I’d love to hear what others think about this.

See that BookBrowse Newsletter here.

Some excerpts from these reviews:

“Absolutely fascinating book about the birth of modern scientists. . . . Very readable book that even non-scientific people such as myself could relate to.”

“I loved The Philosophical Breakfast Club and our social history book club will definitely be reading it!”

“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 effected them emotionally and personally.”

“Awakens the Reader’s Inner Spirit of Discovery” — Bookreporter.com

A terrific new review on the influential website Bookreporter.com:

“For anyone interested in science, history, philosophy or engineering…this is a history book you will not want to miss. The author’s extensive research, wonderful writing, and passion for lifelong learning all serve to awaken the reader’s inner spirit of discovery.”

Read the full review here.

“Snyder writes with the depth of a scholar, the beauty of a novelist” — Science News

A wonderful review is coming out in the March 26th issue of Science News. “In a wonderfully crafted story, Snyder follows how the quartet helped to change the rich man’s hobby into a professional field with public responsibility.”

The review continues,

“This book is far more than a tale of discoveries. A philosopher of science, Snyder writes with the depth of a scholar and the beauty of a novelist. She connects personal and professional histories into balanced conclusions and poignant scenes, such as Herschel’s New Year’s Eve farewell to his father’s famous telescope, when he and his family gathered in the 4-foot-wide tube to sing a requiem before the instrument was closed up forever.”

Read the full review here.

Barnes and Noble Featured Selection

The Philosophical Breakfast Club is featured in today’s Barnes and Noble Review:

“If, like me, you loved Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men or Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder, prepare yourself for the pleasure of further intellectual pursuit in this lively group biography of four men—Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell, and Richard Jones—who met at Cambridge University and spurred each other on to pioneering achievements in crystallography, mathematics, computing, astronomy, and economics.”

See the feature here.

“Best in the genre” — Tyler Cowen

Economist Tyler Cowen has a nice notice of The Philosophical Breakfast Club on his website MarginalRevolution.com.

“This is an excellent book about the history and status of science in 19th century England. If you enjoy the history of science, this book stands a good chance of being the best one in that genre to come out this year.”

You can see the full comment here.

Cowen quotes an excerpt from part of the book in which I discuss the great French table-making project, the 18 volume Tables du Cadastre (the tables for the French Ordnance Survey) which was supervised in the 1790s by the mathematician and civil engineer the Baron de Prony. For this immense project De Prony, influenced by Adam Smith’s discussion of the division of labor in Wealth of Nations, saw that a division of intellectual labor could be useful. De Prony’s project was an influence on and inspiration to Charles Babbage, when he began to think of a calculating engine in the 1820s.

Postponed: NYSL Event

The event at the New York Society Library, originally scheduled for March 10th, has been postponed until April 7th. I’m sorry for the inconvenience!

Interview with LA STAMPA

Today’s Tuttoscienze section of the Italian newspaper La Stampa has an interview with me about the members of the philosophical breakfast club. In it I discuss the changes they brought to science as a profession, and consider how the four men would feel about science today. They would have been pleased by the fact that there is international cooperation in research projects–something that they really spearheaded, with Whewell’s research on the tides and Whewell and Herschel’s active support of the international effort to collect meteorological and magnetic data. But they would have been dismayed, I think, by the growing chasm between science and religion, and science and general culture.

You can read the interview (and see some images of Whewell, Babbage, Herschel and Jones) here.