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TED as an Intellectual Adventure

This article in the latest issue of the New Yorker gives a pretty balanced picture of the TED experience. It does leave out, though, something that struck me so strongly during the five days I spent at TED Global: the raw, unfettered intellectual curiosity of the attendees—who could, after all, spend their money and time on a vacation in Fiji, but who choose TED instead. As someone who has spent many years attending academic conferences, I have to say I have never experienced this kind of openness to ideas from all areas, from people with no particular axe to grind or their own intellectual agenda to promote.

One point the author makes is that ideas are presented apart from their academic connections and references to other works. Fair enough—these are short talks, after all. But what he doesn’t mention is the way that the experience encourages the connection between different disciplines and approaches—which may not otherwise have occurred to most of us. Even I was surprised to find that the talks in my session—by a historian and philosopher of science, an artist running the Rhode Island School of Design, a computational architect, a quantum physicist, a researcher photographing light, and a behavioral economist—all could be seen as having a common thread. (Hint: the way that different ways of representing reality, especially art and language, are related to scientific explorations of nature.) It was a heady experience, one I am still learning from.

TED Bookstore Curated List

The eight guest curators at the TED Bookstore

The eight guest curators at the TED Bookstore

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the folks at TED asked me to be one of eight “guest curators” of the TED bookstore. I put together a list of thematically-related books, and the books–along with my short descriptions of them–were featured on the bookshelves of the onsite bookstore. Here is my list of ten books, along with my “curation philosophy:”

Electricity and Water: Who says they don’t mix?

Throw in a dash of technology, engineering or science, and end up with a galvanising read.

Over the past few years, I’ve been reading and lecturing about the invention of modern science in nineteenth century Britain. Water—the power it generates, as well as the challenges it poses to an island nation—and electricity played crucial roles in England’s rise to scientific and imperial dominance in this period. On my bookshelf now are ten books—fiction and non-fiction—in which water, electricity, or both are central to the tales they tell.


1. Waterland, Graham Swift
Takes place in the Fen country of East Anglia, in bleak marshlands wrested from the sea—a sea that wants the land back. Spanning 240 years, the book weaves a tale of empire-building, sluice-minding, eel reproduction, brewing, incest and madness, adding up to a thoughtful reflection of the nature of history and memory. Both history and memory, like the sea, are fluid and ever-changing. A magical book.

2. Remarkable Creatures, Tracy Chevalier
On the shores of the beaches of Lyme-Regis, a young woman named Mary Anning distinguished herself in the early 19th century as a talented fossil-hunter, discovering the first complete skeletons of the ichthyosaurus and plesiosaur. Her discoveries cast doubt on the prevailing views about the age of the earth, helping to make Darwin’s theory of evolution possible. Chevalier does a fine job of fleshing out the lives of Anning and her main champion, Elizabeth Philpot (real people about whom we know little) and setting their story in the context of science and discovery in the nineteenth century. Read more

First Reflections on TED Global 2012

I am in Amsterdam now, doing research for Eye of the Beholder, having traveled directly here after TED Global ended on Friday. I had thought I would blog throughout the meeting, but it was all so intense and non-stop that I preferred to just live it and reflect on it afterwards. Just a few thoughts now, and more later as they come to me.

It was a whirlwind of talks, social events, and chatting with new friends. Many of the talks I heard were mind-blowing in some way or another; I met a large group of amazing, intelligent, curious, and accomplished people; and the parties (and after-parties) were lavish!

By the time of my talk I was still nervous, but I had already seen that the audience is so receptive and eager to hear what the speakers have to say. As I climbed the stairs to the large stage after being introduced I felt so much positive energy washing over me. As I looked out at the huge audience I recognized many of my new friends, and saw how ready everyone was to hear my story about the philosophical breakfast club. It was so much fun to tell it, and the feedback afterwards was amazingly positive. What was thrilling was how fascinated this group of non-academics and non-historians were by the philosophical and historical story I wove for them.

Bruno Giussani introducing me on the stage of TED

Bruno Giussani introducing me on the stage of TED

You can see the description of my talk—and two photos of me while on the stage—on the TED blog here.

I’ll have more pictures soon, and—with luck—a video to share.

Notes on Preparing for TED Global

I have been preparing to take the stage at the TED Global conference—now only 19 days away, as the TED.com website helpfully reminds me! As it is for almost everyone who speaks at TED for the first time, this is a completely new challenge for me. One thing I’ve discovered in the process is that

No podium
+ No notes (or PowerPoint bullets)
+ Audience of 800+ people
+ Only 15 minutes
= Sheer Terror!

At least I know I’m not alone! As bestselling author Susan Cain described it in a lovely essay for the New York Times Book Review a little while back, at the speakers’ briefing the day before the TED conference she realized that “I probably wasn’t the only one trying to figure out how to get onstage without falling down or throwing up!”

On the more positive side, I’ve realized how useful this process has been for me. Not only has my practice with giving a talk without notes or any kind of crutch begun to make a difference in my other speaking engagements (and I’m sure it will perk up my teaching as well), but I have also found it to be intellectually invaluable. There has been a bit of an epidemic of TED-bashing lately (mostly by people who have not been invited to speak at TED conferences, I might add, or those who went but did not deliver stellar talks). But for me, whatever happens on the TED stage, it has been a wonderful experience in learning how to find the most important message in my own work, and to present it in a fully accessible—and brief—way. I’ve always believed that if you can’t explain your ideas to an interested and educated (though not necessarily specialist) audience—either your students or a general public—then you need to work on clarifying those ideas. Even complex scientific and philosophical concepts can be explained; perhaps not in all their specialist and technical glory, but enough so that others can grasp the nature of those ideas and why they are important. That belief has been underscored by working on my TED talk. And I would now add that anyone working on something that fascinates himself or herself should be able to come up with a 15 minute talk about why it is so fascinating. I hope I have managed to do that. We’ll see soon enough!

Happy Birthday, William Whewell (1794-1866)!!


William Whewell (1794–1866)

William Whewell (1794–1866)

On this date in 1794, the British natural philosopher, mathematician, all-around polymath (and inventor of the word “scientist”) William Whewell was born. I first heard of Whewell in my first year of graduate school, and it is no exaggeration to say that the event changed my life: it led me to write my two books, and indeed to change course in my scholarship, as well as helping to bring about my dream of writing books that people other than scholars would want to read.

The first time Whewell was mentioned in my presence was in a lecture on philosophy of science. Whewell was then mainly known (if at all) as the foil for the (now) more famous British philosopher J.S. Mill. Whewell and Mill famously disagreed about scientific method. Philosophers of Science would at that time routinely refer to Mill as the “winner” in their debate, the one who better understood how science actually worked, casting it as an argument between an inductive view of science and a non-inductive viewpoint, with Whewell in the role of the non-inductivist. I couldn’t help but wonder why a non-inductivist would write a book called Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences! This led me to an intense study of the two philosophers, which resulted in my first book, Reforming Philosophy: A Victorian Debate on Science and Society. I argued there that, in fact, Whewell was proposing an inductive, evidence-based scientific method, in the tradition of Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton. Mill was changing the meaning of induction by introducing a vision of inductive reasoning that held it impossible to have knowledge of anything unseen, such as the unobserved entities and properties part of any scientific law. Mill was the one who did not understand the way science worked.

Mill was not particularly concerned about scientific method; his massive and mostly misunderstood work, A System of Logic, was written as a political tract. The English author and critic (and father of Virginia Woolf) Leslie Stephen said the book was recognized by students of the time as being a treatise on the Utilitarian moral and political philosophy. In Reforming Philosophy I argued that Mill’s scientific method was meant to counter what he considered to be reactionary political and moral views—such as those he, somewhat unfairly, associated with Whewell. So in that book I examined not only the scientific and logical views of Mill and Whewell, but also their positions on moral philosophy, politics, and economics.

That interdisciplinary approach brought me back to my origins as a student not only of philosophy but of history, and particularly the history of thought. The research for that book also led me to a letter received by Whewell when he was Master of Trinity college–a letter that referred back to the “philosophical breakfasts” held in John Herschel’s rooms.

“Philosophical Breakfasts?” I remember thinking, “with Herschel and Babbage? Now this would make a great book!”

A few years later, I finally had the opportunity to write that book, and to write it the way it should be written—in an accessible narrative style. And since the publication of The Philosophical Breakfast Club, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to many people about Whewell and his friends, and the revolution in science they helped bring about. This relationship with Whewell has brought me to a wonderful place in my life. So, for selfish reasons, I celebrate his birthday today.

Philosophical Breakfast Club Featured in Dutch Magazine

I was pleased to see The Philosophical Breakfast Club as one of four books highlighted in the February issue of United Academics, a “Monthly Popular Science Magazine,” published out of The Netherlands. I wonder if my new association with a Dutch publisher (for the new book, Eye of the Beholder) has anything to do with this? It’s funny that a book about four friends who together changed science is featured in an issue on the theme of “Splendid Isolation”—as is a book about love and sex!

You can see the Books Page of the magazine here.

Happy Birthday, John Herschel!

John Frederick William Herschel was born on this day in 1792.  He was the son of Mary Baldwin and the astronomer William Herschel, who had discovered Uranus, the first planet not seen by the naked eye.  John Herschel would go on to do important work in astronomy as well: he studied double-stars, mapped the skies of the Southern Hemisphere, and named moons of Saturn and Uranus.  He was one of the co-inventors of photography, being the one to discover the chemical process by which the action of light on silver-nitrate paper could be stopped, thus “fixing” the images.  He developed the cyanotype method of photography, the precursor to the blueprint, and the method used by Anna Atkins in her groundbreaking work, Photographs of British Algae, the first book illustrated with photographs.  Herschel also studied ultraviolet rays, color blindness, and many other areas.

Of course, Herschel’s impact on the science of his day is due to more than just his individual accomplishments, impressive as they are.  It is due as well to the role he played as a member of the philosophical breakfast club, and the way that this group of men helped transform science, and scientists.

In honor of today’s birthday, a discussion of Herschel and his place in the philosophical breakfast club is featured in today’s edition of the Barnes & Noble Review, which can be read here.  I especially like how the writer quotes the final paragraph of my prologue, which I think gives a sense of the brilliance of Herschel and his friends  Charles Babbage, Richard Jones, and William Whewell, as well the irony of the revolution they wrought–one which, in a sense, left no room for men such as themselves:

“They were widely and classically trained, readers of Latin and Greek, French and German, whose interests ranged over all the natural and social sciences and most of the arts as well, who wrote poetry and broke codes and translated Plato and studied architecture, who pursued optics simply because, as Herschel said, “Light was my first love,” who conducted the experiments that struck their fancy, based on the chemicals and equipment they happened to have on hand, who measured mountains and barometric pressure while on holiday in the Alps and observed the economic situation of the poor wherever their peripatetic wanderings took them. Babbage, Herschel, Jones and Whewell are a strange breed: the last of the natural philosophers, who engendered, as it were with their dying breath, a new species, the scientist.”

Happy Birthday, Philosophical Breakfast Club!

One year ago today I was nervously waiting to see how The Philosophical Breakfast Club would fare once it was released into the world that day.  I have to admit that I wondered whether it would “fall stillborn from the press,” as David Hume said of his Treatise of Human Nature.  I couldn’t imagine how fortunate my book would be in finding its audience right away.  I am grateful for all the readers who took the time to write reviews for Amazon, Goodreads, and the other internet sites.  I also appreciate, very much, those who reviewed the book for newspapers, magazines, and journals.  It was incredibly gratifying to see the wonderful reaction to the book by people who read and review books for a living!

Some of my favorite lines from the published reviews: “Snyder writes with the depth of a scholar and the beauty of a novelist” (Science News); “The lives and ideas of these men come across as fit for Masterpiece Theatre” (Wall Street Journal); “A fascinating story, one told with considerable charm” (Washington Times); “The members of the Philosophical Breakfast Club left behind some lavish gifts.  This volume offers them up delightfully” (Economist);  “A natural successor to Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men and Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder” (Washington Post); “Snyder succeeds famously in evoking the excitement, variety, and wide-open sense of possibility of the scientific life in nineteenth-century Britain” (American Scientist).

Heartfelt thanks to my readers, reviewers, my wonderful editor Vanessa Mobley, my incredible agent Howard Morhaim, all my friends who celebrated the book’s launch with me at the Lotos Club last February 22nd, and my son Leo, who was so excited he did a special “book dance” when we first saw The Philosophical Breakfast Club on the New Non-Fiction table at the Barnes and Noble earlier that day.  It’s been quite a year!

Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!

Charles Darwin was born 203 years ago today. In honor of his birthday, the American Museum of Natural History has unveiled its Darwin Manuscripts Project, a collection of 15,000 digitized manuscript pages and thousands of other documents, including such treasures as notes from Darwin’s time aboard the HMS Beagle, pocket diaries and early drafts of Origin of Species. It’s a wonderful resource, and a fun website to explore. You can view the earlier drafts of the Origin with or without Darwin’s revisions, and see previously unpublished material such as an “experiment book” in which Darwin recorded his original research on plant breeding.

One fun tidbit of information: one reason why there are so few remaining manuscript leaves of the Origin (only 42) is that Darwin used to let his children use the backs of the paper for their drawings! As the website notes, “Darwin often used the backs of his old manuscripts for rough notes and his son Francis recorded that ‘in this way, unfortunately, he destroyed large parts of the original MS. of his books.’ (Life and Letters 1.121.). A pile of papers was kept in a cupboard under the stairs for the children to use for drawing.” (I do that too–my son uses the back of my book drafts for his drawings–though I doubt future historians of science are going to be upset about it!).

Drawing by Francis Darwin on back of manuscript leaf

Dibner Lecture at Smithsonian Now Available Online

The video of my Dibner Library Lecture in December is now available online, here.

Although it was dark in the room, and I had to wear the microphone power-pack on the back of my collar, you can see and hear me well. The audio/visual folks did a great job!

I really enjoyed giving this talk—it was such an engaged audience! Thanks again to the Smithsonian Institution for the invitation, and to everyone who braved the torrential rain to attend.