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Happy 200th Birthday, Charles Dickens!

Charles Dickens was born two hundred years ago today. On the occasion, I would like to remember a connection between Dickens and one of the members of the philosophical breakfast club, Charles Babbage.

Babbage and Dickens were part of the same London social circles; they met often at parties and dinners. Babbage dined at Dickens’ house, at least once in the company of his friend and collaborator in publicizing his engines, Lady Ada Lovelace (and her husband). Dickens is known to have attended Babbage’s own Saturday evening soirees at least once; at these parties, Babbage frequently demonstrated the partial model of his calculating machine, the Difference Engine no. 1.

It is thought—with good reason—that Dickens based the character of Daniel Doyce in Little Dorrit (1855–57) partly on Babbage and partly on his engineer, Joseph Clement. His portrayal of the Circumlocution Office satirizes the British Treasury and its dealings with Babbage over funding his building of the Difference Engine no. 1.

‘This Doyce,’ said Mr Meagles, ‘is a smith and engineer. He is not
hing a large way, but he is well known as a very ingenious man. A 
dozen years ago, he perfects an invention (involving a very curious
 secret process) of great importance to his country and his fellow-
creatures. I won’t say how much money it cost him, or how many
 years of his life he had been about it, but he brought it to
 perfection a dozen years ago….He addresses himself to the Government. The moment he
 addresses himself to the Government, he becomes a public offender!…. He is treated from that instant as a man who has done some infernal 
action. He is a man to be shirked, put off, brow-beaten, sneered
 at, handed over by this highly-connected young or old gentleman, to 
that highly-connected young or old gentleman, and dodged back
 again; he is a man with no rights in his own time, or his own
property; a mere outlaw, whom it is justifiable to get rid of 
anyhow; a man to be worn out by all possible means.’

Soon after the publication of Little Dorrit, Dickens and Babbage joined together in anger against the “street musicians,” mainly organ-grinders from Italy, who were, in the 1850s and 1860s, a scourge to all Londoners—especially those whose work required concentration. These “performers” would go from street to street, making noise on their often un-tuned organs, until someone paid them to go away (a form of extortion familiar to some subway riders in New York City!). Thomas Carlyle spent a small fortune constructing a soundproof study in his London home. Dickens told a friend that he could not write for more than an hour without being driven to distraction by organ grinders. This was a problem in France as well, as the cartoon below shows!

Lord Palmerston asks Napoleon III why he does not move on the Popish organ grinder causing a disturbance outside the Hotel De L’Europe

Finally, the brewer Michael Thomas Bass, Member of Parliament, introduced a parliamentary act “Act for the Better Regulation of Street Music in the Metropolis,” which would give policemen the right to arrest any street performer who did not leave a neighborhood when requested by a homeowner. Babbage figured prominently in the pamphlet Bass published to gain support for his bill. Bass reproduced a newspaper editorial in which its readers were chastised to remember that “the services of Mr. Babbage are employed by the Government in calculations of the highest importance; these calculations require the strictest accuracy; and calm and quiet are absolutely necessary for their development.” (Babbage was not in fact “employed by the Government” in any sense at that point, all funding for his engines having been cut off, but it is telling that Bass thought appealing to Babbage’s need for quiet would have the desired effect!) Dickens contributed a letter to the pamphlet bemoaning the “brazen performers on brazen instruments, beaters of drums, grinders of organs, bangers of banjos, clashers of cymbals, worriers of fiddles, and bellowers of ballads!”

When the Bill passed parliament in July 1864, writers and scholars of all types were grateful. The logician Augustus De Morgan wrote to John Herschel, “Babbage’s Act has passed, and he is a public benefactor. A grinder went away from my house at the first word.”

Dickens and Babbage enjoyed the relative peace for only a few years; Dickens died six years later, Babbage six and a half. During these years, Dickens wrote and published Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and toured America for the second time. Babbage continued to work obsessively on the plans for his Analytical Engine, the first prototype of a modern computer, with little hope of ever finishing.

Girl with a Pearl Earring to Visit New York City!

It has just been announced that Vermeer’s transcendent painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring, will be visiting New York City for the first time in 30 years in October of 2013. This will be a must-see for anyone who loves earrings just as much as me, they are absolutely stunning. I swear I spend half of my time viewing the earrings available at JACOBS THE JEWELLER. While its permanent home, the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in the Hague undergoes renovation, the Girl with a Pearl Earring will travel, with other paintings from the museum, to San Francisco and Atlanta, before coming to the wonderful Frick Museum on October 22, 2013. It will be exhibited close to the Frick’s own three Vermeers: Girl Interrupted at her Music, Officer and Laughing Girl, and my own favorite, Mistress and Maid (a print of which hung over my desk for a decade after I first moved back to New York for my job at St. John’s University).

I am excited not only to see this Vermeer at the Frick, but also one of the other paintings traveling with it: The Goldfinch, by Carel Fabritius, who had studied with Rembrandt before coming to Delft. Most of his paintings were destroyed in the explosion of the munitions store that also killed him and destroyed a good part of Delft in 1654.

On second thought, I may not be able to wait until late 2013…in which case I had better get to The Hague before this April, when the renovations at the Maurithuis begin!

Paperback Publication Day!!

Today’s the day—the paperback edition of The Philosophical Breakfast Club is being released. To mark the occasion, I’d like to repost a comment (originally written in February) on the friendship that transformed science:

I still remember the moment I found out that the word “scientist” had not been invented until 1833; it was one of those experiences in which everything you thought you knew shifted a bit. What were men and women who studied the natural world known as before then? Why was the word invented then, at that very moment in history, and not before or after? I had to know more.

As I dug down and began learning about the inventor of the word, William Whewell, I found that he was a brilliant polymath who did important work in crystallography, mineralogy, and mechanics, who created the science of the tides and mathematical economics, and who introduced natural sciences as a degree-granting program in the British universities; he also he translated Plato and Schiller, wrote poetry, and studied architectural history.

I learned about his circle of friends at Cambridge University and the “Philosophical Breakfasts” they used to have together. And I discovered that at those breakfasts, the four—Whewell, John Herschel, Charles Babbage, and Richard Jones—resolved to bring about a new scientific revolution, one that would make science and its practitioners truly modern. And, remarkably, I found that they had in fact brought about this revolution, and this is why the newly modern practitioners of science required a new title: “scientist.”

When I began to write a book about these four men and the revolution in science they helped bring about, I saw it as a story of science and ideas. Soon, however, it became a story of friendship. These men were such fascinating intellects. Each was brilliant in more than one field—Babbage the inventor of the first computer, Herschel a great astronomer who also coinvented photography, and Jones an economist of note who influenced Karl Marx—and together they utterly transformed science.

Yet they were also passionate, loving men, whose relationships with one another (as well as with the women in their lives) were intense. I found the conjunction of so much raw intellect with deep feeling incredibly compelling.

Mere months after meeting, for example, Charles Babbage and John Herschel are sending each other letters signed “Yours till death/shall stop my breath”! Later in life, the friends named their children after one another; Whewell and Jones were each godfathers to one of Herschel’s children; Jones performed the wedding ceremony of Whewell and his first wife; Whewell performed the marriage of one of Herschel’s daughters to his own nephew.

They visited one another whenever they could, even in the days before railroads when travel was arduous and time-consuming; and when they were separated the four wrote hundreds of letters to one another, letters that were encouraging, at times contentious, and often quite passionate. I realized that their revolution in science was due to more than just the sum of their individual accomplishments and mental endowments—it was due to their friendship.

This was a true fellowship of minds and hearts, one which I still find inspiring.

On Historical Imagination

“History written without sufficient imagination risks a failure of basic human empathy. We sometimes think that the historical imagination is the gift of seeing past—seeing past the surface squalors of an era to the larger truths. Really, history is all about seeing in, looking hard at things to bring them back to life as they were, while still making them part of life as it is.”

This wonderful quote from Adam Gopnik’s piece in this week’s New Yorker about books on the Spanish Inquisition captures so well what the historian ideally aims at: providing the reader with not only historical facts (what happened when and where and to whom) but more crucially with what it really was to live there and then, and live through or “inhabit” those historical “moments.”

When I read a work of history, I don’t want it to be fiction (though I do love good historical fiction, but that’s another genre). But I do want to be transported back to the time under discussion, to feel as though I have gained some kind of understanding of what it was like to live then. Not only what people wore, what they ate, how they lived and died, but also, how they thought, what were their ideas and opinions and beliefs. Providing this kind of historical understanding is what I aim for in my own historical writing.

However, as Gopnik notes, this concept of historical imagination is not the norm in academic historical writing. In fact, I would add, it is viewed with suspicion. I was surprised while teaching a graduate history seminar last semester that the students, at the start of the course, felt that historical works should not give too much of the sights and smells and feelings of the time, that somehow this was unseemly or too “popular.” Books that discussed 17th century British history, for example, should steer clear of explicit descriptions of plague victims and their sufferings or else be guilty of pandering to a non-academic audience. Yet how can we truly understand what it was to live in London in the 1660s without knowing what it was like to die of a disease that struck down about 20% of the population in the city in 1665?

As Gopnik puts it in relation to the Inquisition, “if you can’t imagine the horror of being burned alive, then you haven’t, so to speak, lived.” He praises history that “makes us feel not just what it was to see the Inquisition at work but what it was to suffer from it.” Without historical imagination, you cannot truly have historical understanding.

One Week to Paperback Launch!

It’s hard to believe, but in only one week from today the paperback edition of The Philosophical Breakfast Club will be released! As fewer and fewer serious non-fiction trade books appear in paperback, it is wonderful to know that the publisher believes this book will have a long life as a trade paperback.

There’s still time to pre-order the book, and get it on publication day!! You can do so at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.

Happy New Year!!

I wish everyone a new year filled with peace, joy and love!

2011 was quite a year for me. It began with the preparations for publishing The Philosophical Breakfast Club, and ended with the arrival of the advance copies of the paperback edition. On the very last night of the year, a subway rider was captured (by a friend of mine) reading a New York Public Library copy of the book!

And 2012 is going to be very exciting as well! Now that the revels have ended, it’s back to work on researching and writing the next book, Eye of the Beholder!!

New Year's Eve Dinner with Friends

As the months go on I’ll be blogging here about my progress on the new book, as well as some exciting news and speaking engagements related to The Philosophical Breakfast Club. So stay tuned!

Happy 2012!!

Fireworks over Central Park

Happy Birthday, Charles Babbage!

Charles Babbage, mathematician, philosopher, inventor, engineer, and member of the philosophical breakfast club, was born 220 years ago today, on December 26, 1791.

Sadly, Babbage is mainly known today for successes that were also failures: although Babbage invented the first general purpose calculating machine (the Difference Engines no. 1 and 2), and the first prototype of a modern computer (the Analytical Engine), he failed to build any of them completely–even though the British government gave him funds well beyond what any other natural philosopher or inventor had received from the public purse (I discuss the reasons for this failure in The Philosophical Breakfast Club).

One of his biographers has dubbed Babbage the “irascible genius,” and it is true that, by the end of his life, he was both. In part that is because he saw that few people in Britain, not only politicians but also natural philosophers, could really see the point of the extraordinary precision that the engines could bring to calculation. Babbage frequently expressed his frustration with this attitude, most pithily in this quotation:

Propose to an Englishman any instrument, however admirable, and you will observe that the whole effort of the English mind is directed to find a difficulty, defect, or an impossibility in it. If you speak to him of a machine for peeling a potato, he will pronounce it impossible; if you peel a potato with it before his eyes, he will declare it useless, because it will not slice a pineapple.

Today, when computers are so fully integrated into our science and our everyday lives, we can celebrate the birthday of the first true computing visionary.

The Paperback Edition Has Arrived!!

An exciting surprise in the mail today: two big boxes filled with copies of the paperback edition of The Philosophical Breakfast Club (for sale in stores January 17th, available for pre-order online now).

The paperback edition is every bit as lovely as the hardcover!!

Here’s the front cover, which was altered a bit from the hardcover edition in order to fit a great quote from the Wall Street Journal review (“The lives and ideas of these men come across as fit for Masterpiece Theatre“):

And the back cover, highlighting the reviews from Michael Dirda of the Washington Post (“As wide-ranging and anecdotal, as excited and exciting, as those long-ago Sunday morning conversations at Cambridge…A natural successor to Jenny Uglow’s Lunar Men and Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder“) and from American Scientist (“Snyder succeeds famously in evoking the excitement, variety, and wide-open sense of possibility of the scientific life in nineteenth-century Britain,”), as well as the fact that the book was chosen as a Scientific American Notable Book.

And the first of three very, very full pages of praise for the hardcover edition:

Thanks to everyone at Random House/Broadway, and the readers and reviewers of the hardcover edition, who helped make this paperback possible!

Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays, everyone! For those who are still shopping, remember that books make wonderful gifts. As the great English literary critic and essayist William Hazlitt (1778-1830) said,

“Books let us into their souls and lay open to us the secrets of our own.”

No scented candle can do that!

ORIGIN OF SPECIES Published November 24, 1859

One hundred fifty-two years ago today, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. The first print run of 1250 sold out immediately. The second edition of 3000 copies, rushed into print on January 7, 1860, sold out quickly as well. Everyone, it seemed, was reading and discussing the book and its theory. George Eliot wrote a friend that “we have been reading Darwin’s Book…just now: it makes an epoch.”

Darwin had been working on his theory for over twenty-five years, ever since he had returned to England from his voyage on the HMS BEAGLE. He spent much of that time compiling vast amounts of evidence for the theory that species change into new species over time. Darwin was determined that his published theory would satisfy the conditions for good science laid down by John Herschel and William Whewell. In particular, Darwin hoped to show that his theory of evolution by natural selection was consilient, in the sense that it was supported by evidence of many different kinds. In Origin, Darwin showed that his theory provided a causal explanation for facts in the realms of classification of organisms (how they are sorted into groups), biogeography (patterns of distribution of species), comparative anatomy (homologous structures, that is, parts that were similar in different species), paleontology (especially the fossil record, which shows both the extinction of old species and the arrival of new ones) and other areas. Darwin emphasized this appeal to consilience in later editions of the book, arguing that “I cannot believe that a false theory would explain…the several large classes of facts above specified.”

Darwin was pushed into publishing his book by learning that another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, had written a paper on the “introduction” of species that made similar claims about the how patterns in the geographical distribution of species could be explained by the introduction of new species near an already existing, closely related species. The geologist Charles Lyell realized that Wallace’s theory was close to Darwin’s, and urged his friend to publish quickly so as to establish his priority. As Darwin began to work, Wallace sent Darwin a paper describing an evolutionary mechanism similar in some ways to Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection. On July 1, 1858, a two papers by Wallace and Darwin were presented jointly to the Linnean Society. After that, Darwin began writing his book, which he considered an “abstract of my whole work.”

Happy Birthday, Origin of Species, and Happy Thanksgiving!