A Friendship that Revolutionized Science

I was recently asked what surprised me the most while writing The Philosophical Breakfast Club.  I think it was my realization that what had started out as a book about the power of ideas to change the world had become a story about a friendship that revolutionized science.

Read the full story here.

Happy Birthday, John Herschel (b. March 7, 1792)!!

In honor of John Herschel’s birthday, I would like to share this brief excerpt from the beginning of chapter 9, “Sciences of Shadow and Light.”

Thirty-three years after the fact, Margaret Herschel still recalled with photographic clarity the visit a friend of her husband’s had paid to Slough. On February 1, 1839, William Henry Fox Talbot took the new railway from London to visit John, bringing with him specimens of an ingenious method he had devised to capture images on paper. Margaret recalled that Talbot had shown the two of them “his beautiful little pictures of ferns and Laces taken by his new process.” He had produced them by placing leaves and pieces of lace on top of specially treated paper inside a wooden box covered with a glass lens, and setting the whole apparatus outside on the lawn of his estate, Lacock Abbey. The action of the sun on the light-sensitive silver chloride coating on the paper turned the areas around the objects a warm, dark brown, while the parts covered up by the leaves and lace were left a bright white–not unlike the effect of the potter Josiah Wedgwood’s jasperware, with its creamy white designs against darker backgrounds.

The problem, Talbot complained to the Herschels, was that over time the continued exposure to light would cause the images of the leaves and laces to turn a dark brown, just like the background, and the picture would be lost.  He had no way to “fix” the images.  Margaret remembered that her husband had said, “Let me have this one for a few minutes.”  After a short time he returned, and handed the picture to Talbot, saying, “I believe you will find that to be fixed”—and thus, Margaret proudly boasted, the problem of rendering photographs permanent was solved by her husband.

Herschel had, on this telling of the story, realized with a flash that experiments he had conducted in 1819 could provide the solution. . . .

“A Great Weekend Read” — The Daily Beast

The Philosophical Breakfast Club was designated a “Great Weekend Read” by The Daily Beast. “Snyder weaves a compelling . . . 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.”

Read the full review here.

I especially love how the author of the review highlights the enduring importance of these men in three areas: the issue of public funding, the collection and calculation of vast data sets, and the question of the relation of the arts and the sciences. As the review ends: “With Snyder’s book the call to action is clear: bring the arts and the sciences back to the breakfast table and raise a mug of ale in memory of the four Victorian scientists who changed the world.”

Philosophical Breakfast Club featured in Nature

The Philosophical Breakfast Club appeared in the Books in Brief section of Nature, in the February 24th issue:

“Cambridge University has schooled many great scientists. Historian Laura Snyder explores the friendships between four men who met there in the 1810s: Charles Babbage, inventor of the computer, astronomer John Herschel, crystallographer William Whewell and economist Richard Jones. Inspired by their seventeenth-century forebears, including Francis Bacon, they founded a breakfast club, where they plotted to revolutionize science. Drawing on their correspondence, Snyder describes how they did just that.”

“The lives and ideas of these men come across as fit for ‘Masterpiece Theater.’” — Wall Street Journal

Today’s Wall Street Journal says, “Ms. Snyder…shows a full command of the scientific, social and cultural dimensions of the age. In Ms. Snyder’s telling, the lives and ideas of these men come across as fit for ‘Masterpiece Theater.’”

Read the full review here.

In the last lines of a very positive assessment of the book, the reviewer, a physicist, takes issue with two paragraphs in my Epilogue, where I suggest that as a result of the professionalization and specialization in the sciences brought about by the members of the philosophical breakfast club, there arose a greater divide between science and the rest of culture. I claim that scientists today are less able to “express that wonder [in the natural world] to others, even non-specialists” than people like Herschel and Whewell, who wrote important books about science aimed at a general literate audience, in addition to writing and translating poetry about nature.

That still seems obvious to me. Writers of successful popular books who are practicing professional scientists, like Brian Greene, are few and far between. I’d love to hear from other readers of the book on this topic!

Coming Soon…..

Photos from the book launch party at the Lotos Club Tuesday evening, and a very, very big review coming out on Saturday!

Publication Day!!

It’s publication day for The Philosophical Breakfast Club! If you have not yet ordered your copy, now’s the time! You can read it immediately on the Kindle, Nook or PC, or if you buy it from your local bookstore.

I haven’t yet seen the book out in a shop. Leave a comment below when you have seen it in a window or on the shelves of a bookstore! Thank you!

Readers will “Leap for Joy” — The Daily

A review in The Daily, the new magazine for the iPad, says that “Geeks, scientists, intellectuals, boys between ages 10 and 16 and all combinations of the above will leap for joy at Laura J. Snyder’s book. . . . We owe this quartet a lot (photography and mathematical economics, to start) and Snyder does a lively job of explaining why.”

Read the full review here.

A story told “confidently, stylishly, engagingly” — The Star Ledger (New Jersey)

A fabulous review in today’s New Jersey Star-Ledger says that “Snyder engagingly stakes out an era beginning with science as a hobby of vicars and the wealthy to its evolution as the engine of imperial growth, in no small measure due to the efforts of four who made common cause at breakfast.”

Read the full review here.

Live Radio Interview Monday

On Monday at 9am EST I will be talking about The Philosophical Breakfast Club live by telephone with Sean Moncrieff of Newstalk Radio, broadcast out of Dublin. You can listen in here.