Interview with Laura J. Snyder

 author of



Q: The Philosophical Breakfast Club tells the story of four remarkable men who transformed science. What attracted you to these four men—Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell, and Richard Jones?

LS:  These men were such fascinating intellects—really, each was brilliant in more than one field, and together they utterly transformed science.  Yet they were also passionate, loving men, whose relationships with each other (as well as with the women in their lives) were intense.  I found the conjunction of so much raw intellect with deep feeling incredibly compelling.  Mere months after meeting, for example, Charles Babbage and John Herschel are sending each other letters signed “yours till death/shall stop my breath”!  This was a true fellowship of minds and hearts.

Q: What are Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell, and Richard Jones best known for?  

LS: Babbage is the most well known, for his invention of the first computer.  Sadly, he is also known for never having built any of his machines.  So his is a tragic story of brilliance thwarted by personality defects—he just could not get along with anyone by the end of his life.  Herschel is known as an important astronomer.  Fewer people know of his central role as the co-inventor of photography; he came up with the method to “fix” the photographs, with what photographers still call the “hypo” (for hyposulphite of soda).  Whewell is little known today outside of Cambridge, where he is remembered as the authoritarian Master of Trinity College who endowed the buildings still known as “Whewell’s Court.”  But his work in creating mathematical economics and promoting international tidal science still has importance today.  Richard Jones is even less widely known, but Karl Marx referred to his work often in the notes on economics he took when he first came to London.

Q: Your inspiring story of intellectual loyalty and friendship spans four lifetimes. Can you describe how these men first met in Cambridge in 1812? 

LS: Herschel and Babbage met first, probably drawn together by their shared love of both mathematics and chemistry, in 1810.  In 1812 they formed a society for promoting the type of calculus that was being used on the Continent.  By late 1812 they invited Whewell to join them; he was then a first-year student and known as a mathematical prodigy who had come from very humble beginnings.  Whewell had just met Richard Jones because Jones was friends with the older brother of one of Whewell’s fellow Trinity students.  The four immediately recognized that they shared the love of fine wine, excellent cuisine, and gossiping about the scientific establishment.

Q: Tell us about your research for the book. Where did you gather your materials? How are the chapters constructed?

LS: I did a great deal of research in various archives in England.  The Wren Library—an absolutely stunning library—at Trinity College has 8000 letters to and from Whewell, including all of Whewell’s correspondence with Jones.  The Royal Society of London has an extensive collection of Herschel’s correspondence, and Babbage’s correspondence is collected at the British Library.  I also found material at the Science Museum’s archives in Swindon, on an abandoned airfield.  It’s amazing to hold and read letters written almost 200 years ago, and we are fortunate to have these resources (I do wonder how historians will work in the decades to come—no more letters or diaries to peruse, as it’s all digital now!).  I also learned much about Babbage’s inventions by spending an afternoon with the Babbage Project Engineer at the Science Museum, Richard Horton, who was part of the team that built Babbage’s Difference Engine number 2 in the early 1990s, based on his drawings, using the technological specifications possible in the 19th century.  It was such a thrill to see him pull the enormous machine out of its glass case and turn the crank handle, making the machine calculate, which it did flawlessly.

The chapters are mainly organized chronologically, following their friendship over nearly 60 years of their lives, though I occasionally deviate from that timeline to discuss related developments at the same time.

 Q: During your research, what was the most unexpected discovery?

LS: There were so many!  I think I was most surprised by realizing that Charles Darwin had just attended one of Babbage’s Saturday night soirees when he first wrote in his diary that evolution of species was a real possibility.  At these soirees Babbage demonstrated his model of the Difference Engine, and used it to show that God was something like a “Divine Programmer” who preset laws into nature at the start of creation, laws that could include future alterations in the patterns.  Babbage explicitly told his audiences that the origin of new species could have arisen this way, rather than by “miraculous” interventions of God each and every time.  At this exact moment, Darwin was trying to reconcile the observations he had made while on the Beagle voyage with his faith in God.  I think it likely that Babbage helped Darwin to see how evolution could be part of a lawful, God-created world.  Later, however, Darwin abandoned his belief in God.


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About the Author

Laura J. Snyder, Ph.D., is a science historian, philosopher and writer whose most recent book, The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends who Transformed Science and Changed the World, was an Official Selection of the TED Book Club, a Scientific American Notable Book, and winner of the 2011 Royal Institution of Australia Poll for Favorite Science Book. It was also named an "Outstanding Academic Title" in history of science and technology by the American Library Association. Snyder is Professor of Philosophy at St. John's University in New York City and writes frequently about science and ideas for The Wall Street Journal. She is a Fulbright Scholar, a Life Member of Clare Hall College, Cambridge, and Past President of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science.

 She is currently working on a book about how new optical technologies in the 17th century revolutionized not only science, but also art and the rest of culture. Follow Laura Snyder on Twitter and Facebook.

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