Everyone today is familiar with a large number of great scientists and inventors whose ideas have led to discoveries that have changed the face of the world in some profound and meaningful way. Yet how many know the names of these four Cambridge graduates: William Whewell, John Herschel, Richard Jones and Charles Babbage? Though not as famous as many inventor-icons of the same caliber, these men have been no less impactful on our current view of science as a vital discipline and trusted means of discovery. They were all connected through friendship 200 years ago in a college in Britain, once being members of a private society at Cambridge. Before their time, science was considered a somewhat frivolous pursuit.
Together, the Philosophical Breakfast Club coined the name "scientist," melding the ideas of exploring science and art. Each member of the club would go on to promote science as a means of discovering truth. Their collective efforts drastically altered the process of scientific exploration from one that was inherently biased and error-prone to one that was accurate, repeatable and theoretically testable by anyone. In essence, these four academics gave the Scientific Process validity and made it a reality for virtually anyone with an idea or question to change the world if they were motivated enough and used the proper care.
The timeline of THE PHILOSOPHICAL BREAKFAST CLUB spans the beginning of the 19th century to its end, following the scientists through their astounding careers and varied explorations. After a brief introduction, Laura J. Snyder wastes no time in getting to the meat of the story: Four brilliant hopefuls have arrived at Cambridge and find they have much in common. Whewell, Herschel, Jones and Babbage soon set up meetings for the purpose of discussing a mutual admiration for Sir Francis Bacon's philosophies, feeling that his understandings of the Scientific Method are not being carried out properly.
Over the course of breakfasts and dinners (quite often while drinking profusely), they share ideas and debate the current status of science in Britain. Although the group is seen as riotous and overly liberal by the dominant institution, these intellectual discussions lead to an evolution of natural philosophy. They become fast friends and move on to various career paths in separate disciplines, each leading to new inventions and discoveries around the world. Numerous scientific annals are published in their names while they remain in touch over the decades, and a shared pact from the Cambridge days reminds each to continue pursuing science and shedding new light on various fields of research, essentially inspiring them to change the world.
Today, Charles Babbage is best known as the father of the modern computer, yet he was also a reformer in the fields of mathematics, philosophy and engineering. John Herschel was instrumental in transforming mathematics, astronomy, chemistry and photography, while Richard Jones went on to become a great economist. Jones made "political economy" a practical field of Baconian science, addressing issues like poverty and national stability. William Whewell went on to study a vast number of seemingly unrelated scientific disciplines, finally publishing groundbreaking work in physics, mechanics, astronomy, economics, geology, philosophy and theology. Their friendships endured for most of their lives until (sadly) an argument began over the issue of science supporting or refuting the existence of God. This finally led to the end of what had been an amazing organization of extraordinarily innovative people devoted to sharing and considering new ideas and making the world a better place.
For anyone interested in science, history, philosophy, or engineering, and especially those who don't mind lengthy and challenging reads, 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.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on March 28, 2011