Four Experimental Lives
THE PHILOSOPHICAL BREAKFAST CLUB: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World. Laura J. Snyder. viii + 439 pp. Broadway Books, 2011. $27.
For a few fertile months in late 1812 and early 1813, four Cambridge undergraduates met for boozy breakfasts and spirited conversation after compulsory Sunday chapel service. The subsequent lives, works and loves of the members of the short-lived Philosophical Breakfast Club provide Laura Snyder, a historian and philosopher of science at St. John’s University, with the framework for narrating the rise of science and scientists in Britain in the half-century between 1820 and 1870. The contrast between the ample “philosophical” of the club’s playful name and the more focused “scientist” (the very word coined by an erstwhile Breakfaster in 1833) neatly captures the transformation promised in the book’s subtitle.
It is characteristic of the four protagonists of Snyder’s book, The Philosophical Breakfast Club, that each wore several hats: Charles Babbage, mathematician, political economist, inspired tinkerer and political gadfly; John Herschel, astronomer, chemist, philosopher and inventor; Richard Jones, curate, political economist and government official; and William Whewell, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and a polymath whose writings embraced everything from Gothic architecture to the tides. Each of these men fully deserves the accolade “remarkable,” even if their reputations have waxed and waned unevenly. Whereas Herschel and Whewell bestrode the British scientific world like colossi during their lifetimes, Babbage languished in bitter disappointment at his failure to build his visionary Difference and Analytical Engines, despite lavish government support. Yet with the benefit of hindsight, Babbage’s fame as the inventor of what we now call the computer outshines Herschel’s catalogue of the stars of the southern hemisphere and Whewell’s prodigiously detailed synoptic maps of the tides. Jones was (and is still) the lesser light of the four, a portly, easygoing man who had to be goaded into finishing his anti-Ricardian, anti-Malthusian treatise on political economy by the workaholic Whewell. Nonetheless, Jones’s service on the commission that reformed the system of church taxes (“tithes”) probably had greater impact on the lives of his contemporaries than did any of the accomplishments of his more celebrated friends.
In Snyder’s able hands, the intertwined lives of the four Cambridge friends become the stuff of a Trollope novel. (One of them, Herschel, even shares Plantagenet Palliser’s obsession with converting Britain to decimal currency.) They devise ambitious scientific plans: to fix the fleeting images of the camera obscura on paper treated with chemicals; to discern the laws of the world’s tides and thereby avert shipwrecks; to put political economy on a sound empirical basis; to mechanize the computation of the most fiendishly complicated tables; to redesign the lackadaisical Royal Society along more professional lines. They travel widely, visiting Parisian savants, scaling Swiss peaks (barometer and thermometer at the ready), and cataloguing stars and plants at the Cape of Good Hope in Africa. They court, marry and multiply, standing as godfather to one another’s children; and with heartbreaking frequency, they mourn untimely deaths. They exult and despair, compete and commiserate, and, through it all, write letter after quotable letter.
This voluminous correspondence is the heart of Snyder’s group portrait. She deftly interweaves snippets from the letters with lucid explanations of the science involved and with scenes from 19th-century British life: the digging of canals in Whewell’s native Lancaster; uproarious student pranks in Cambridge; the stinking waters of the Thames before sewer systems were instituted; the first meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), complete with balls, concerts and banquets of Rabelaisian proportions; the construction of the Crystal Palace, with its 900,000 square feet of glass panes. She is excellent at sketching a milieu or a mood with an apt quotation or a few piquant details—how Babbage entertained his dinner guests with demonstrations of the marvelous Difference Engine; how Herschel cooked his lunch in the baking South African sun; how Whewell burst into tears at an unexpected student tribute after the death of his wife. In the letters exchanged among the four Breakfasters, Victorian science emerges as anything but stuffy.
Focusing on the correspondence also allows Snyder to blend intellectual and familial registers, just as her protagonists did in their letters. She is alert to nuance and sensitive to what is unsaid as well as to what is said. The approach yields dividends that even Snyder herself sometimes does not fully exploit. At several junctures, she reminds readers that the Victorian term “man of science” should be taken literally: Most practitioners were in fact men; women were largely excluded from higher education and participation in learned societies. All true, and yet no reader can fail to be struck by the scientific activities of women that leap from the pages of the book. In addition to published stars like Mary Somerville (the translator and explicator of French mathematician Pierre-Simon de Laplace’s Mécanique céleste) and Anna Atkins (author of a striking treatise on British algae illustrated by deep blue cyanotypes), there are Herschel’s formidable astronomer aunt Caroline, who was his scientific confidante for decades, and his wife Margaret, who cosigned the illustrations they made of South African flora. Whewell’s second wife, Fanny, goes along to witness a solar eclipse in Spain. So many women attend the meetings of the BAAS that some of its leaders fret about the organization becoming the butt of jokes. The point is not that these women are unsung heroines of science (although Caroline Herschel certainly deserved a greater share of the recognition heaped upon her brother William, John’s father). Rather, before the establishment of research institutions in academia, government and industry, the site of science was usually the home, and the scientific support staff was the family (including the children, in the case of Herschel and also Charles Darwin). In the short term, the professionalization of science (and its link to academic credentials like the doctorate) narrowed the opportunities for women and other outsiders to participate.
The great strength of the book is, however, also its main weakness: By concentrating so single-mindedly on the careers and correspondence of her four heroes, Snyder sometimes suggests that their story is the story of 19th-century science tout court. Although it is clear from the correspondence that Babbage, Herschel, Jones and Whewell were polyglots as well as polymaths, and in close contact with their colleagues abroad, non-British people and places appear only when one of the four visits them or when a Briton is vying with a foreign rival for scientific glory (as in the priority dispute between John Couch Adams and Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier over the discovery of the planet Neptune). The only non-English entry in Snyder’s bibliography is an article that Babbage happened to publish in French; yet Babbage and his friends regularly read and reviewed scientific publications in other tongues. More important for her principal point—the growing prestige of science and the professionalization of the role of the scientist—were the models of first France, with its paid academicians and politically influential savants, and later Germany, with its research universities and booming science-based industries. Because Babbage fulminated in print about the backwardness of English science in comparison with its French counterpart, and Whewell corresponded with the Belgian statistician Adolphe Quetelet, the reader catches occasional glimpses of a wider scientific world, but only through the keyhole of the correspondence. It does her cosmopolitan protagonists an injustice to shrink their scientific networks to monolingual, nation-centered dimensions.
Otherwise, Snyder succeeds famously in evoking the excitement, variety and wide-open sense of possibility of the scientific life in 19th-century Britain. Her four heroes moved easily between city and country, university and government, technical and popular publications. Part of the reason for this social fluidity lay in the power of a small, interlocking elite—but only part. As Snyder points out, none of the four was to the manor born (although Herschel’s father, an itinerant German musician, had been knighted for his astronomical discoveries), and Whewell was the son of a carpenter. Their status rose on the swelling wave of science, which their achievements in turn buoyed up.
Even more diverse than the contexts in which these men circulated were the intellectual interests they pursued, from chemical experiments and mathematical analysis to translations of Plato and Homer. Snyder’s epilogue sounds an elegiac chord, ringing with nostalgia for a world we have lost. Her plotline requires that the professionalization of science culminate in triumph, but she regrets the ensuing specialization. She resorts to the Romantic language of wonder to express the contrast between the worlds of the natural philosopher and the scientist, but there is no dearth of wonders in modern science, touted just as loudly as the marvels that issued from Herschel’s laboratory or Babbage’s workshop. What has changed is the persona of the scientist and the organization of scientific labor, neither of which are currently conducive to the sometimes genial, sometimes quirky, and always polyvalent exploration of topics that do not promise promotion or prizes. This is not a contrast between leisured amateurs and hard-driving professionals. The members of the Philosophical Breakfast Club worked to the point of exhaustion and were productive enough for thrice their number. But for the most part, they worked on what snagged their curiosity, a curiosity splendidly evoked in this engaging book.
Lorraine Daston is the director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and is a visiting professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. She is coeditor with Elizabeth Lunbeck of Histories of Scientific Observation (University of Chicago Press, 2011) and coauthor with Peter Galison of Objectivity (Zone Press, 2007), and is currently completing a book on moral and natural orders.