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The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World

4.02  ·  Rating Details ·  321 Ratings  ·  76 Reviews
The Philosophical Breakfast Club recounts the life and work of four men who met as students at Cambridge University: Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell, and Richard Jones.  Recognizing that they shared a love of science (as well as good food and drink) they began to meet on Sunday mornings to talk about the state of science in Britain and the world at large.  ...more
Hardcover, 448 pages
Published February 22nd 2011 by Broadway Books (first published January 1st 2011)
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Mar 20, 2011 David rated it it was amazing
If you enjoyed Holmes' book The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, then you will thorougly appreciate this book, as well. In The Age of Wonder, one of the main characters is William Herschel, the discoverer of the planet Uranus. In this book, one of the four main characters is his son, John Herschel. It turns out that John Herschel also became an astronomer, just as famous and as influential a scientist in his time, as his father. Another of t ...more
Gli anni d’oro della scienza, mi verrebbe quasi da dire.
La scienza non era ancora specializzata come sarebbe diventata poco dopo -e grazie anche all’opera di questi quattro ragazzi-, e Herschel e Whewell ne erano gli emblemi viventi. Astronomia, ottica, lingue, matematica, fisica, chimica, botanica… non c’era ramo della scienza nel quale i due geni non fossero ferrati e dove non facessero esperimenti innovativi.
E non erano scienziati, questo termine nascerà solo grazie a Whewell ormai all’apice
May 29, 2011 Nathan rated it liked it
Shelves: history, science-fact
Four friends who met at Cambridge in the early 1800s and who went on to coining the term "scientist", run the world's first international data-gathering project, design the first computer, and reboot economics. It's a good story with a lot of colour and context, but it's a LONG story--it follows these four active chaps through their long lives and many projects. I have to admit that my attention waned towards the end, but perhaps that was a function of trying to rip through the last half in two ...more
Dec 20, 2010 Angie rated it it was amazing
This scholarly but very accessible history of science in the early nineteenth century centers on four young Cambridge undergraduates, William Whewell, Charles Babbage, John Herschel, and Richard Jones, who meet for breakfast on Sundays in 1812 to discuss their passion for “natural philosophy” (science) and their equally strong passion to reform how science is done. They are strong admirers of Francis Bacon, who emphasized an inductive methodology whereby data is gathered and observations made th ...more
Feb 10, 2014 Terri rated it it was amazing
William Whewell's destiny changed between noon and 2 p.m. in in late 1808 or early 1809. The headmaster and parish curate knew William was destined for academic greatness and it was on lunch hour that he spoke to William's father. William's father was reluctant to give up his apprenticing son in the family business of carpentry, to study math and science. In the end, however, the offer was to good to pass up; William would be given a scholarship and then further help would come from all of the t ...more
Jenny Brown
Sep 29, 2011 Jenny Brown rated it it was amazing
I am baffled at how anyone could find this book dull. I read it with pleasure the whole way through. It's a brilliant book that shows how its subjects thought about what they were doing when they were doing science, gives us a broad view of the development of science and technology and the way English educational institutions handled them in the period between the napoleonic wars and the early Victorial age, and last, but not least, brought to life four brilliant creative people who were the las ...more
Mar 03, 2015 Donna rated it really liked it
Shelves: science, read-in-2015
Excellent book about the tremendous influence on science of four men who met as students at Cambridge University: Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell, and Richard Jones. Just to mention a few of the stories that particularly struck me:

Whewell's work on tides which included what must have been the first global crowd-sourced science project in which he got people around the world to take tidal measurements every 15 minutes for the same two week period.

Herschel as one of the inventors o
Steve Van Slyke
Feb 02, 2015 Steve Van Slyke rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, science
An enjoyable read about the men who were at center stage when natural philosophy became science and the age of specialization began. Generalists became a dying breed and the future belonged to botanists, physicists, computer scientists, geologists, etc. Mores the pity?

I particularly enjoyed the knowledge that Charles Darwin was a young man during these men's ascendance and that he undoubtedly followed them and their works very closely. It is likely that they made it easier for him to finally pr
Patricrk patrick
Jun 05, 2011 Patricrk patrick rated it liked it
Shelves: science
I thought the author stretched the facts to say these four changed the world. They made important contributions to science and science education but I don't get the change the world part. I enjoyed the book and it gives a different viewpoint on the Royal Society than what I'd gotten from some other books about science in that time frame. I liked the historical perspective. But, I'd sure rather live in time than in theirs.
William Boyle
Nov 23, 2013 William Boyle rated it it was amazing
This is a truly remarkable book -- Author Laura J. Snyder brings you "up close and personal" as modern science takes its first "baby steps" -- and makes you realize the tremendous POWER of the scientific approach, to have brought about such tremendous change in such a short amount of time! -- FIVE stars! -- Certainly recommended!
Emily (Heinlen) Davis
Mar 29, 2012 Emily (Heinlen) Davis rated it it was amazing
This book is just brilliant! Not only is it exceptionally well-written, but it is also a wonderful historical narrative on the history of "scientist" and the field surrounding it. It's amazing how much a person or a small group of people can change the course of history. I highly recommend this book.
Feb 12, 2012 Kathy rated it it was amazing
Shelves: math-science, history
Science, philosophy, literature, politics, and religion all play a part in the history of the development of the science professional. A nice view of the culture and world during this time period.
Mar 20, 2011 Monica marked it as maybe-someday
Recommended to Monica by: Dan
Shelves: history, wish-list
I think I'll like the way this book approaches what is to me a dry subject.
Stephen Case
Jun 17, 2016 Stephen Case rated it really liked it
The best popular book about John Herschel's life out there right now is not about him only. It's about him and three friends-- William Whewell, Richard Jones, and Charles Babbage-- who attended Cambridge together and, as Laura Snyder's subtitle has it, "transformed science and changed the world." With the exception of perhaps Babbage (the most irascible of the bunch) not many people have heard of the others, but Snyder brings them to life using their published works and unpublished correspondenc ...more
Feb 18, 2014 Rama rated it liked it
Shelves: biography
A biography of Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell, and Richard Jones

This is a biography of four men that chronicles their work in the early 19 century at Cambridge. This group is called the Philosophical Breakfast Club. Charles Babbage invented a calculating machine, a primitive form of calculator, John Herschel made early contribution to the invention of photography and also mapped the skies of southern hemisphere, William Whewell did some basic work on crystal structures, and Rich
I really enjoyed this volume, which serves as a sort of mosaic of science in England in the first two-thirds of the 19th century.

Snyder makes four men -- William Whewell, Charles Babbage, John Herschel, and Richard Jones -- the center of her narrative, but does not trace their lives chronologically. Instead, after some brief biographical sketches that bring the reader to the point where the four men were together at Cambridge, she breaks her narrative up by their fields on interest, addressing i
I won this book on the First Reads giveaway program. Thanks for the book!

The subjects of The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World, John Herschel, Charles Babbage, William Whewell, and Richard Jones met at Cambridge where their idealism and mutual admiration for subjects such as Francis Bacon, inductive reasoning, and Leibniz's calculus notations led them to do what all young Cambridge men back in the early 19th century do - form a cl
Aug 26, 2011 Meghan rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Meghan by: Marcel Kuijsten
Like several other reviewers, I picked up this book as a semi-sequel to The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, another survey of a period and a zeitgeist in science captured through the linked lives of key thinkers, discoverers and writers. This book follows the next generation, literally in the case of William and Caroline Herschel's son and nephew John (although Caroline gets short shrift from Snyder, something that wrong-footed me from the ...more
Jun 11, 2016 Barak rated it really liked it
An excellent exposition of the "vestiges" of modern science, demonstrated by Snyder through four key players: William Whewell (of whom she is a known scholar), John Herschel, Charles Babbage, and Richard Jones.

Despite already possessing relatively good knowledge of both the period and some of these players (even to the extent of reading some works by them and writing essays about them) there were still both new facts and minutiae that were new to me. It was interesting to discover and rediscover

This work is a collective biography of four nineteenth century British men who met at Cambridge University and contributed to the intellectual life of their country, mainly in the sciences. They were born roughly a generation before Charles Darwin. The four men where William Whewell, who coined the word "scientist," Charles Babbage, John Herschel, and Richard Jones. Charles Babbage is known for his attempt to develop a true computer, the analytical engine as he called it. John Herschel, the son

Jan 04, 2013 Cherie rated it it was amazing
I chose to read this book because I wanted to see how an earlier era dealt with dramatic scientific developments and discoveries when they challenged the prevailing religious views. This is an excellent read, sometimes almost like a novel, describing the competition between French and English "scientists" at the very time that the word "scientist" was just being discussed -- natural philosopher had been the previous notation. Snyder gives excellent detail about each of the major discoveries, the ...more
Jan 30, 2011 Grace rated it really liked it
Shelves: first-reads, history
The Philosophical Breakfast Club is a very good history of science book. It is a story about 4 men, William Whewell, John Hershel, Richard Jones, and Charles Babbage, who strived to take science from a field that was merely poked about in to a real professional endeavour. This book outlines their efforts and the culture of the world they lived in, as well as the the scientific accomplishments of the day.

Critical Assessment
While this is a history book, and it's topic is science, it is not
Feb 05, 2015 Glynn rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
This is a book about 4 friends who in college (or the British equivalent) would meet in one of their rooms and have breakfast together. They would then talk philosophy, which was actually science but in the 1800s there wasn’t anything like a scientist, it was all philosophy. Later, they go on road trips which aren’t all partying and drinking but actually scientific road trips with many discoveries (and some drinking.) Over the years they stay in touch through good times and hard times, which rea ...more
Jan 22, 2011 amandalee rated it really liked it
Shelves: first-reads
I won my copy of this book from a First Reads giveaway. Thanks for the book!

The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World is a very well researched and surprisingly easy to read non-fiction text. The book follows the lives of four "Natural Philosophers" - or, in other words, scientists- William Whewell, John Herschel, Richard Jones, and Charles Babbage. These men, who met at Cambridge as undergraduates, would meet regularly to discuss sci
Jan 02, 2011 Dottie rated it really liked it
At the beginning of the 19th century, what we now think of as scientific pursuits were the purview of talented and often wealthy amateurs. Scientist was not a word, there was no money to support research, and the concept of a scientific method was unknown. Four visionary Cambridge students, Richard Jones, Charles Babbage, William Whewell and John Herschel were determined to change this and, amazingly through their work and their influence on the work of those who followed them, managed to do so. ...more
Apr 29, 2011 Pat rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
I won this book through Read It Forward. I had heard of Charles Babbage and John Herschel before, but I knew nothing of William Whewell or Richard Jones. “The Philosophical Breakfast Club” seemed a good way to learn. In fact, it was a totally marvelous way to learn more of the four gentlemen that made up the group of friends, and of the times in which they lived.
I found LAura Snyder’s writing style very easy to read, even when she was explaining scientific concepts. Although it has been many, ma
Mar 08, 2012 J.S. rated it it was ok
Shelves: history-science, vine
In the early 1800s four young friends at Cambridge University spent Sunday mornings together discussing "natural philosophy," or what we now call science. William Whewell, John Herschel, Charles Babbage, and Richard Jones were highly gifted and inspired by the ideas of Frances Bacon, and resolved among themselves to make studies of the natural world based more on fact and experiment than the deduction of "armchair philosophers" so common then. Over their lifetimes they contributed much to our kn ...more
Jul 03, 2011 Christine rated it really liked it
I liked a lot, but didn't love this book about an important time in the development of science. There was a lot that was good about it. Basically four very interesting biographies that illustrate the time. Largely uplifting, but often very sad. My main complaint with the book is stuff like the following confounding sentence:

"Whewell was nearly seventy years old, and strongly committed to his religious views, which had helped sustain him in the loss of his dear friend Joens and his wife, Cordelia
Aug 12, 2014 Daphne rated it it was amazing
This is definitely one of my favorite reads this year.
I took my time with this book, because it was fascinating and I didn't really want it to end. It chronicles the lives and scientific and literary work of four of England's most prominent early 19th- century intellectuals: Jones, Babage, Whewell and Herschel. In effect, they transformed Science into a field and its disciplines into professions. From the discovery of Neptune to mapping of the tides, from photography to literature to the organiz
Josh Hamacher
Jun 23, 2012 Josh Hamacher rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
For a few months, from late 1812 until the spring of 1813, four students at Cambridge would meet on Sunday mornings to discuss science (among other topics). These four - Charles Babbage, John Herschel, Richard Jones, and William Whewell - vowed to change science by making it more "scientific" (this term had not yet been coined). This book uses the story of these four friends, all of whom went on to very illustrious careers, to frame the larger narrative of how science changed throughout the nine ...more
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An expert on Victorian science and culture, Fulbright scholar Laura J. Snyder just completed a term as President of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science, and is Associate Professor of Philosophy at St. John's University.
More about Laura J. Snyder...

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