Day 102: The Philosophical Breakfast Club

Laura Snyder begins with a story. June 24th, 1933. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge stood up at the British Association for the Advancement of Science and announced that philosophy didn’t consist of experimentation and dirty work. The term scientist was born and a scientific revolution began.
Much of this revolution can be traced back to four men who met in Cambridge many years before for a series of meetings they called, ‘The Philospohical Breakfast Club.’ The group was an illustrious and talented one. Charles Babbage invented the first mechanical calculator and the first prototype of a modern computer. John Herschel mapped the stars of the Southern Hemisphere and in his spare time, co-invented photography. Richard Jones became an important economist who later influenced Karl Marx. William Whewell coined the term scientist as well as the words, anode, cathode and ion. These undergraduate meetings with grandiose dreams eventually led a number of significant changes that characterised the revolution.
Working together, the philosophical breakfast club made scientific information more accessible to the general population, rather than allowing it only to be used by individuals for personal gain. They lobbied the government for money to build Babbage’s machines. They rebelled against the status quo of the Royal Society of London, forming a number of other scientific associations. Herschel’s book on the inductive scientific method, first proposed by Newton, was quoted by Charles Darwin as one of the most influential things he’d ever read.
Essentially, the breakfast club helped invent the modern scientist. The unfortunate flip side is that science and the rest of culture have become increasingly more disjoined. Only 28% of Americans surveyed had even basic scientific knowledge. Once scientists became members of a professional group, they were slowly separated from everyone else.
It appears Darwin had it right, when he said, ‘I sometimes think that general and popular treatises are almost as important for the progress of science as is original work.’


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