Book review: The Philosophical Breakfast Club

June 26th, 2011 | Categories: Books, Science | Tags:

Back in the good old days when I was a freshly minted postgraduate student I had big plans– In short, I was going to change the world.  Along with a couple of my friends I was going to revolutionize the field I was working in, win the Nobel prize and transform the way science and mathematics is taught at University.  Fast forward four years and it pains me to say that my actual achievements fell rather short of these lofty ideals.  I considered myself lucky to simply pass my PhD and land a job that didn’t involve querying members of the public on their preferences regarding potato based products.  The four subjects of Laura Snyder’s latest book, The Philosophical Breakfast Club had broadly similar aims to my younger self but they actually delivered the goods and they did so in spades.

In this sweeping history of nineteenth century science, Snyder gives us not one biography but four — those of Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell and Richard Jones.  You may not have heard of all of them but I’d be surprised if you didn’t know of some of their work.  Between them they invented computing, modern economics, produced the most detailed astronomical maps of their age, co-invented photography, made important advances in tidology, invented the term scientist (among many other neologisms) and they are just the headliners!  Under-achievers they were not.

These four men met while studying at Cambridge University way back in 1812 where they held weekly meetings which they called The Philosophical Breakfast Club.  They took a look at how science was practiced in their day, found it wanting and decided to do something it.  Remarkably, they succeeded!

I found Snyder’s combination of biography, history and science to be utterly compelling…so much so that during my time reading it, my beloved iPad stayed at home, lonely and forgotten, while I undertook my daily commute.  This is no dry treatise on nineteenth century science; instead it is a living, breathing page-turner about a group of very colourful individuals who lived in a time where science was done rather differently from how it is practiced today.  This was a time where ‘computer’ meant ‘a person who was good at arithmetic’ and professors would share afternoon champagne with their students after giving them advice.  Who would have thought that a group of nineteenth century geeks could form the basis of one of the best books I’ve read all year?

  1. June 27th, 2011 at 00:36
    Reply | Quote | #1

    Will add to my ever-growing list of books I want to read before I die. At the current rate, I expect to live to 273 .

    I was amused by your plans as a graduate student. I had those plans, too. After seven years as a professor (including making associate prof my fourth year), I decided to found a consulting company and spend as much of my life as possible doing whatever the hell I felt like. I do take occasional stabs at changing the world, still.

  2. Alexandre
    June 27th, 2011 at 17:36
    Reply | Quote | #2


    I also wanted to change the world… But it seems that the world (unfortunately) changes us first…

    I will read the book!

  3. Joplin
    June 28th, 2011 at 08:40
    Reply | Quote | #3

    As long as we cannot change the fact that we will eventually die, nothing can be changed in this world. Unfortunately this might not have been proven mathematically but it certainly has been proven historically.