History Behind Modern Marvels

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 24, 2011 | Go to article overview
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History Behind Modern Marvels


Byline: Gerald J. Russello, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The scientific method and the respect accorded science seem so obvious now that it is hard to believe it could be any other way. Yet the conversion from what science is and what it was is a fascinating story, one told with considerable charm by Laura J. Snyder in The Philosophical Breakfast Club.

Ms. Snyder, an associate professor of philosophy at St. John's University, centers her story around four figures who met when they were undergraduates at Cambridge University in the early 1800s. William Whewell, John Herschel, Richard Jones and Charles Babbage may not be well-known today outside of science historians, yet their meeting as young men would change the world.

Beginning around 1812 and lasting for much of their undergraduate careers, the four charted a course through a series of Sunday breakfast meetings in which they determined to leav[e] the world wiser than we found it, as one of them said. Drawing from the work of Francis Bacon, they envisioned a scientific research institute and public recognition of the work of science. This was a drastic departure for the time, when there was no scientific profession, and indeed, what we now know as scientific endeavors were merely considered hobbies of the rich or amateurish pursuits.

The four were indeed extraordinary. Whewell was identified as an outstanding intellect from the time he was a boy and rocketed through Cambridge to a fellowship at Trinity College. Babbage invented a usable calculating machine - a precursor of the computer. Herschel made advancements in chemistry, and Jones in 1831 made a name for himself with a book titled Essays on the Distribution of Wealth, using empirical evidence and the scientific inductive method. In between careful explanations of their scientific explorations, Ms. Snyder weaves in an account of life in 19th-century England and the nonscientific lives of her four subjects; this is a story of friendship as well as science.

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