How did we get from Jacquard’s loom to a 21st century game show touting arti­ficial intel­li­gence? When did the idea of a global economy, including a loss of jobs to foreign lands, first appear? Who could have imagined that the mapping of world tides would make air travel safer? Could William Hershel have dreamed the work his son John would com­plete in mapping the stars? And how did four young uni­versity men, meeting for breakfast on Sunday mornings in Cam­bridge to discuss the impor­tance of cham­pi­oning Francis Bacon’s inductive rea­soning, change forever the world of science?

I do not pretend that science is my thing, but Laura J. Snyder has written one of the best books out this year. The Philo­sophical Breakfast Club, a nar­rative history of the world of science in Vic­torian Great Britain, not only makes a subject many of us left behind in our high school chem­istry labs come alive, but also makes it pow­er­fully rel­evant to the world we live in today.

John Hershel, William Whewell, Richard Jones and Charles Babbage were all born within four years of each other; became acquainted in their Cam­bridge years and formed a long lasting friendship based on their mutual admi­ration of Francis Bacon. Snyder’s description of each of the men’s lives, their fam­ilies, their dis­cov­eries, suc­cesses and failures, is written with depth and honesty. The author fleshes out these remarkable men making use of her own inductive obser­va­tions. We under­stand them as sons, scholars, hus­bands and fathers, but that’s only one reason to rec­ommend this book.

Her treatment of the world of science (phi­losophy) takes the reader from the late 1700’s well into the 1800’s, a period of both great dis­covery and great public fas­ci­nation with science at almost every level. The general public attended lec­tures, demon­stra­tions and eagerly devoured books of a sci­en­tific nature.The Indus­trial Revolution’s explosion of invention was not unlike our Silicon Valley of the 1970’s. Without skipping a beat, the story Snyder tells runs par­allel to much of what we expe­rience in the 21st century. For the layperson, whose only prac­tical asso­ci­ation with science involves taking our meds, turning out the lights, flying to visit our children, and using our PCs and laptops as best we can, this book is a lively, acces­sible and very close look at the world of modern science in its infancy.

The sub­jects covered in Snyder’s book include the effects of a global economy; the need to study the effects of job loss as a result of tech­no­logical advances; eco­nomics as both domestic and political areas of study; the need to under­stand a natural the­ology in light of Darwin; the question of whether and how science and the­ology can coexist; the need for a machine to cal­culate with accuracy and speed (another instance of job loss). This is not a fast read, but once started it is hard to put down.

The sci­en­tific method, fol­lowing in the foot­steps of Francis Bacon, is as important today as it was for Hershel, Babbage, Jones and Whewell. Snyder shows the layperson that the dis­tance we’ve traveled since Vic­torian times may not be as great as we think. That a person could make a livelihood from science was a rev­o­lution itself. Even more rev­o­lu­tionary is the myriad of sci­en­tific pro­fes­sions prac­ticed today, some so eso­teric that they no longer speak to the world, but only to each other. The book does not end with the death of the last member of the Philo­sophical Breakfast Club; the author takes us into the 20th and the 21st cen­turies, inviting us to read closely, gather infor­mation and think about what we might learn.

  • Kristi Ingram

    Some­where I’d read another review and put it on the unread­books list in my head. Sounds like I ought to move it from the unreads to the reads list. Thanks, Sunny.

    • Sunny

      Wow, Kristi — you have an UNREADBOOKS list? Please remember, that just because I liked that book, it may not be for everyone. But then, you are not everyone. Tell you what, it has one place to go first, but when that reader is through with the ARC, I’ll pass it on to you.


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