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“Impressive, Engaging, Valuable” — Choice

A wonderful review from Choice, the review magazine of the American Library Association:

“An impressive biography of four Victorian polymaths. . . . The men’s entangled lives and work make engaging and informative reading. A valuable book. . . . Highly recommended.”

The complete review:

Philosopher and science historian Snyder (St. John’s Univ.) has written an impressive biography of four Victorian polymaths: William Whewell, Charles Babbage, John Herschel, and Richard Jones. Their individual achievements are remarkable. Herschel made important contributions in astronomy, including mapping southern stars and discovering Uranus, and in photography. Babbage worked on a mechanical computer and its mathematics, and Jones authored books on economic theory and English government economic policy. Whewell made wide-ranging contributions in astronomical and mineralogical studies and educational reforms. He also wrote major philosophical works on the history and philosophy of the “inductive sciences,” integrating his theology and ethical notions into science (both he and Babbage contributed Bridgewater treatises on science and religion), and influenced Lyell, Maxwell, and Darwin in important ways. The collaborations of these remarkable men in economics, science, mathematics, and social policy, particularly their development of institutional reform—notably their formation of the British Association for the Advancement of Science—virtually created the “profession” of science with its institutions, curricula, norms, and methods. Whewell coined the term “scientist” and provided Faraday and others with terminology for their discoveries. The men’s entangled lives and work make engaging and informative reading. A valuable book for all undergraduate libraries. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All academic, professional, and general readers. Copyright 2011 American Library Association.

Paperback Launch Party

What a fun celebration we had last night to toast the launch of the paperback edition of The Philosophical Breakfast Club! A few friends gathered with me at the Jones Wood Foundry, a “Food Driven Pub” on the Upper East Side–the closest thing to a real English pub outside the UK!

My editor Vanessa Mobley was called away at the last moment, but the wine she sent us was much appreciated!

Happily, my wonderful agent, Howard Morhaim, was able to join us.

The food and drink were excellent, and lots of fun was had by all!

Many thanks to my friends for celebrating with me, and to Stuart, Renee and Jason at the Jones Wood Foundry for making the party a real success!

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.

Upcoming Event: Arnold Arboretum, Harvard University, May 9, 2012

I’m happy to announce that I will be giving a public lecture on The Philosophical Breakfast Club at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University on Wednesday, May 9th 2012, at 7pm. The lecture is open to the public.

For more information about the talk, and to reserve tickets, see here.

I look forward to seeing friends and fans of The Philosophical Breakfast Club at the Arboretum on May 9th!

“Great Book for Anyone Interested in the History of Science” — Citizen Science League

It was great to see this new review on the website of the Citizen Scientists League.

“A very accessible history of British science in the early nineteenth century. . . . Snyder brings us from the early days of natural philosophy, which looked nothing like what we would call science today, to the verge of the modern era where the word scientist was well known, where scientists would actually get paid for doing science, where the government began supporting scientific inquiry and science was beginning to be taught as a separate topic at universities. . . . This is a great book for anyone who is interested in the history of science.”

Read the full review here.

Photos from Dibner Library Lecture

I finally have some photos from the Dibner Library Lecture. The lecture took place in a lovely room in the Smithsonian Castle. It used to be the library, and you can see bookshelves lining the walls. These are now used as display cases; each member institution of the Smithsonian gets to put a representative display in one of the cases.

(This was taken about an hour before the lecture began. The hosts had received so many RSVPs for the lecture that they set up about 100 seats, most of which were full by the time I began speaking!)

There were numerous rather large and looming examples of 19th-early 20th century taxidermy arrayed on top of the cases:

And here I am during the talk, probably explaining the finer points of how the members of the Philosophical Breakfast Club brought about the invention of the modern scientist (either that, or describing how much they ate and drank at their breakfasts!).

It was great fun! I especially enjoyed the Q & A afterwards—what a smart and engaged audience!

New Review of “Il club dei filosofi che volevano cambiare il mondo”

A review of the Italian edition of The Philosophical Breakfast Club has appeared in the November issue of RAS: Rassegna Dell’Autonomia Scholastica:

“It is a novel-like book that one reads with pleasure . . . with the desire to prolong the pleasure of following the lives of the four scientists involved.”

You can read the review here.

Reminder: Dibner Lecture, Washington DC, December 6

I wanted to remind D.C.-area friends and fans of The Philosophical Breakfast Club that I will be delivering the Dibner Library Lecture at the Smithsonian Castle Commons next Tuesday, December 6, at 5pm. The lecture is free and open to the public, and will be followed by a reception. I’d love to see you all there!

They made up a lovely program for the lecture; view it here.

Dibner Library Lecture Press Release

The Smithsonian Institution has posted its press release announcing my Dibner Library Lecture here.

Dibner Library Lecture, December 6, 2011

I am excited to announce that I will be delivering the Dibner Library Lecture at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, December 6, 2011. Last year’s Dibner Library Lecturer was Richard Holmes, author of The Age of Wonder; previous lecturers include Anthony Grafton (Princeton), Joyce Chaplin (Harvard), Owen Gingerich (Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory), Katherine Park (Harvard) and many other distinguished scholars in the history of science.

I will speak on “The Philosophical Breakfast Club and the Invention of the Scientist.” The lecture will be held in the Smithsonian Castle Commons/Schermer Hall at 5pm, followed by a reception. It is free and open to the public. I hope to see many friends and fans of The Philosophical Breakfast Club there!

The Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology opened in 1976. Its core collection of 10,000 rare books and 1000 manuscript groups came to the Smithsonian from the Burndy Library, founded by Bern Dibner. The collection includes some of the most important scientific texts spanning the 15th to the early 20th centuries. The Dibner Lecture was begun in 1992, and since 2000 the lectures become available in published form and also on the Smithsonian Institution’s website.

More to follow, when the Smithsonian makes its official announcement!