This is a 'group biography' of four young Cambridge men who started eating breakfast together and embarked upon a project to reform natural philosophy. In so doing they coined the term 'scientist' and re-established Baconian induction as a technique: there had been worrying recent moves to assert the primacy of deduction in Science which would have led to sterility. More specifically, these four were:
William Whewell, a carpenter's son who become Master of Trinity, originated the natural Sciences tripos (in the process inventing the subject of History and Philosophy of Science), and founded the British Association
Richard Jones, who did pioneering work in Economics
Charles Babbage who invented the computer
John Herschel who followed his father William as an astronomer, discovering nebulae, and worked with Fox Talbot on the invention of photography.
It is especially nice how the biography brings out the different personalities of these four men. Jones was often ill and prone to depression. Babbage was very irascible (in his later life he became obsessed with the noise that organ grinders made with the result that street urchins teased him by banging kettles whenever they saw him); he fought with everyone; his perfectionism meant that neither of the computers he designed were ever built. Whewell learned to use his fists as a poor boy at grammar school; later he rode horses 'hard' and was eventually killed by a truculent steed. Herschel was sweet-natured.
The insistence on induction (or rather, like Bacon, they believed that science should proceed not like a spider, who in an analogy with deduction, spins webs from a single thread, nor like an inductive any who piles up leaves, but like a honey bee who gathers nectar and then transform it to honey) led them to react against Ricardo's Principles of Political Economy in which he tries to devise Economics from first principles, like Cartesian science or Euclidean geometry. They also recommended, following Bacon again, that scientists should seek out "crucial experiments that could definitively decide between two rival theories" (p114). Jones's analysis of Economics also refuted the population trap of Malthus.
A lot of what they did prepared the ground for Darwinian evolution (Whewell was very worried by the possibility that evolution would damage religion but when the Origin of Species was published he recognised the strength of its arguments and kept quiet unlike many less cautious contemporaries). For example, Babbage used a feedback mechanism on a working model of his Difference Engine to show to an audience that included Darwin how a mathematical rule could be automatically modified by the machine. He then suggested that by analogy the Creator could have designed the world such that species evolved rather than having to intervene whenever he wanted a new species.
Whewell also dabbled in architecture, explaining that the crucial feature of the Gothic style was not the pointed arch which had been suggested a priori but, through an inductive look at the evidence, that churches aimed for vertical spaces rather than horizontal spaces thus requiring mechanisms such as the pointed arch.
Whewell also introduced the concept of consilience. For Whewell, what made Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation so strong was not just that it had predictive ability (for example in predicting the existence of Neptune), although that was important, but that it unified a number of diverse fields, in Newton's terms terrestrial dynamics and celestial dynamics. After Whewell's death one of his students, a lad called James Clerk Maxwell, unified Optics and Electromagnetism in an even greater act of consilience. This section leads to a bit of a howler when Snyder states that Maxwell calculated the speed of electromagnetic radiation to be 310,740,000 miles per second when she means metres per second!
This review gives a small flavour of the many fields that these great but rather too little known scientists illuminated.
This is a fantastic book, incredibly readable and so interesting. June 2013; 368 pages
- I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57