Snyder (Philosophy/St. John’s Univ.; Reforming Philosophy: A Victorian Debate on Science and Society, 2006) shows how four British “natural philosophers” helped launch modern science.
Lifelong friends since 1813, when they were students at Cambridge University, the scientists—William Whewell, Charles Babbage, John Herschel and Richard Jones—shared a belief in the importance of precise measurement and calculations as the basis for the scientific method and advocated public support for science. The author makes a convincing case that not only did each of these men make important individual contributions—Whewell became the master of Trinity College, Cambridge; Herschel mapped the southern skies; Babbage invented the first computer; Jones was a pioneer in developing statistical economics—but together they played a vital role in transforming science. One of the group’s running debates—on the role of God in the evolution of new species—was influential in helping Darwin formulate the theory of natural selection. The breakfast club where they met regularly at Cambridge to discuss their ideas led 20 years later to the formation of the British Association for the Advancement of Society, which they helped found. In 1833, Whewell chaired its third meeting and in response to an attack from the Romantic poet Coleridge—who derided its members as mere experimenters “digging in fossil pits, or performing experiments with electrical apparatus”—coined the term “scientist” as a replacement for “natural philosophers.” The much older Royal Society continued to exist, but its meetings were poorly attended. On the other hand, BAAS meetings, a forerunner of modern scientific conferences, drew thousands and shaped the direction of science, opening their meetings to the broader public and reintroducing debate, which had been banned by the Society since the days of Newton.The author skillfully weaves together the lives of her four principals with the science of their day.