Books: ‘The Philosophical Breakfast Club’ by Laura Snyder, reviewed by Michael Dirda

Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly said that the 19th-century scientist William Whewell taught at Trinity College, Oxford. He taught at Trinity College, Cambridge. This version has been corrected.

March 23, 2011

This fine book — essentially a history of British science during the first two-thirds of the 19th century — examines the interwoven lives of Charles Babbage (1791-1871), John Herschel (1792-1871), William Whewell (1794-1866) and Richard Jones (1790-1855). In their time, all were famous, but today only the first is still a name to conjure with. The cranky, irascible Babbage imagined, then built a small model of what he called a “Difference Engine,” and worked out plans for the even more sophisticated “Analytical Engine.” In short, as every reader of Victorian steampunk fiction knows, Babbage invented the computer.

His friends, moreover, were no ­slouches. Whewell coined the word “scientist,” suggested that geologist Charles Lyell name historical epochs “Eocene,” “Miocene” and “Pliocene” and gave Michael Faraday the terms “ion,” “cathode” and “anode.” Whewell became a professor of mineralogy, produced a book on scientific method that inspired a young man named Darwin, translated Homer’s “Iliad” into hexameters and spent the second half of his adult life as the master of Trinity College, Cambridge, the most influential academic post in Britain. Richard Jones, the least notable of the four, made his mark as a critic of David Ricardo’s hardhearted economics and influenced the more socially aware thought of John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx. The only child of William Herschel, the emigrant German astronomer who discovered the planet Uranus, John Herschel eclipsed his father in the wide range of his scientific interests. First notable as a chemist and a mathematician, he later charted the stars of the Southern Hemisphere, produced a massive catalogue of nebulae and was instrumental in the development of photography, showing William Henry Fox Talbot how to fix an image so that it wouldn’t fade.

These lifelong friends first met at Oxford, where Herschel hosted, in 1812 and 1813, what we would now call Sunday brunches during which the conversation touched on every aspect of science, religion and society. From the beginning, the quartet shared two convictions: Science must be grounded in careful observation and exact measurement, and it should benefit humanity. Drawing on astonishing energy and learning, even by Victorian standards, they helped bring about the transformation of science from a hobby into a profession. In the course of their careers, as Laura Snyder writes:

“They had publicly called for public funding for scientific innovation. . . . They had brought to the public’s attention the issue of scientific method, writing popular books and articles on the subject. They had advanced the idea that the methods of one science (geology) could be brought to bear on another (economics). They had argued for professorships in the sciences at the universities, and for adequate lecture rooms, laboratories, and salaries for those professions. . . . They had been instrumental in the formation of scientific societies,” including the Astronomical Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Notably, too, their personal influence extended far and wide. To choose just one example: Whewell teamed up with Francis Beaufort of the Hydographic Office to study tides. Beaufort, as every sailor knows, gave his name to the scale still used to gauge the wind’s force. But as Snyder casually reminds us, Beaufort was also “the government official who approved Charles Darwin for the position of naturalist on the voyage of HMS Beagle.”

Snyder is a historian of science, and whenever her fab four start on a new project she regales the reader with its past history. Thus, in the course of her book, she explains Francis Bacon’s inductive method, the early development of automata (including Jacques de Vaucanson’s notorious “Defecating Duck” with its 400 moving parts), the history of economics and the care of the poor, the discovery of photography in Europe and England, the stormy life of Byron’s daughter Ada (who, as the mathematically gifted Countess Lovelace, assisted Babbage in his work), the New York Sun hoax claiming that Herschel had discovered “bat-men” on the moon, the controversies surrounding the rival mathematicians who calculated the existence of Neptune, the search for the magnetic poles, the development of an English form of telegraphy quite different from that of Samuel Morse and the methods of cryptanalysis used by Babbage in his solution to the famous “Vigenere” code, the supposedly “indecipherable cipher.”

In short, “The Philosophical Breakfast Club” is as wide-ranging and anecdotal, as excited and exciting, as those long-ago Sunday morning conversations at Oxford. Snyder just can’t resist a good story or an odd factoid. For example, prior to outlining in detail the workings of Babbage’s Difference Engine, she informs us that “the first mechanical calculating device known to have been constructed was designed by Wilhelm Schickard (1592-1635) of Wurttemberg, later part of Germany. Schickard was, impressively, Professor of Hebrew, Oriental Languages, Mathematics, Astronomy, and Geography at the University of Tubingen. Schickard was well acquainted with the famous astronomer Johannes Kepler, discoverer of the elliptical shape of planetary orbits, who had come to Tubingen to help defend his mother when she was accused of being a witch.” That a great scientist’s mother might have been a witch — to learn such a fact is half the charm of reading history. Elsewhere, Snyder notes that Babbage invented the “penny post” in which the sender paid for a single stamp, good nationwide, rather than having a letter’s recipient charged according to the distance the letter had traveled. “Babbage calculated that the cost of sorting the mail and determining the appropriate postage cost more than what the postal service earned by the extra postage.”

Some readers may find Snyder almost too generous with her anecdotes and back-stories, but to me her book is an example of popular intellectual history at its near best. What’s more, “The Philosophical Breakfast Club” forms a natural successor to Jenny Uglow’s “The Lunar Men” (which focuses on 18th-century chemist Joseph Priestley, inventors James Watt and Josiah Wedgwood, and polymath Erasmus Darwin), and Richard Holmes’s “The Age of Wonder” (in which William Herschel and his sister Caroline are prominent figures, along with chemist Humphry Davy and botanist and head of the Royal Society Joseph Banks). As it happens, the final chapter in “The Philosophical Breakfast Club” looks briefly ahead to the careers of James Clerk Maxwell and Lord Kelvin, so perhaps there’s yet another volume needed to bring the history of British science into the 21st century. In the meantime, allow Laura Snyder to introduce you to the obsessive Charles Babbage and his busy, hardworking friends.

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday. Visit his book discussion at washingtonpost.com/readingroom.

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