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The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the Worldby Laura J Snyder
Synopses & Reviews
With the recent landing of the Mars rover Curiosity, it seems safe to assume that the idea of being curious is alive and well in modern scienceandmdash;that itandrsquo;s not merely encouraged but is seen as an essential component of the scientific mission. Yet there was a time when curiosity was condemned. Neither Pandora nor Eve could resist the dangerous allure of unanswered questions, and all knowledge wasnandrsquo;t equalandmdash;for millennia it was believed that there were some things we should not try to know. In the late sixteenth century this attitude began to change dramatically, and in Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything, Philip Ball investigates how curiosity first became sanctionedandmdash;when it changed from a vice to a virtue and how it became permissible to ask any and every question about the world.
Looking closely at the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, Ball vividly brings to life the age when modern science began, a time that spans the lives of Galileo and Isaac Newton. In this entertaining and illuminating account of the rise of science as we know it, Ball tells of scientists both legendary and lesser known, from Copernicus and Kepler to Robert Boyle, as well as the inventions and technologies that were inspired by curiosity itself, such as the telescope and the microscope. The so-called Scientific Revolution is often told as a story of great geniuses illuminating the world with flashes of inspiration. But Curiosity reveals a more complex story, in which the liberationandmdash;and subsequent tamingandmdash;of curiosity was linked to magic, religion, literature, travel, trade, and empire. Ball also asks what has become of curiosity today: how it functions in science, how it is spun and packaged for consumption, how well it is being sustained, and how the changing shape of science influences the kinds of questions it may continue to ask.
Though proverbial wisdom tell us that it was through curiosity that our innocence was lost, that has not deterred us. Instead, it has been completely the contrary: today we spend vast sums trying to reconstruct the first instants of creation in particle accelerators, out of a pure desire to know. Ball refuses to let us take this desire for granted, and this book is a perfect homage to such an inquisitive attitude.
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. Inspired by the great 17th century scientific reformer and political figure Francis Bacon—another former student of Cambridge—the Philosophical Breakfast Club plotted to bring about a new scientific revolution. And to a remarkable extent, they succeeded, even in ways they never intended.
Historian of science and philosopher Laura J. Snyder exposes the political passions, religious impulses, friendships, rivalries, and love of knowledge—and power—that drove these extraordinary men. Whewell (who not only invented the word “scientist,” but also founded the fields of crystallography, mathematical economics, and the science of tides), Babbage (a mathematical genius who invented the modern computer), Herschel (who mapped the skies of the Southern Hemisphere and contributed to the invention of photography), and Jones (a curate who shaped the science of economics) were at the vanguard of the modernization of science.
This absorbing narrative of people, science and ideas chronicles the intellectual revolution inaugurated by these men, one that continues to mold our understanding of the world around us and of our place within it. Drawing upon the voluminous correspondence between the four men over the fifty years of their work, Laura J. Snyder shows how friendship worked to spur the men on to greater accomplishments, and how it enabled them to transform science and help create the modern world.
About the Author
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. She is associate professor of philosophy at St. John's University and the author of Reforming Philosophy: A Victorian Debate on Science and Society.
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