Wanted: Another Scientific Revolution

In the 19th century, four friends changed the way scientists viewed themselves. It’s time for another shake-up.

Broadway Books, 2011

When H.M.S. Beagle set sail from Plymouth Sound on December 27, 1831, the ship’s young naturalist, Charles Darwin, was a self-proclaimed “natural philosopher.” By the time he disembarked the ship about five years later, he was a “scientist”—a word invented in the intervening years by fellow Cambridge University alum and polymath William Whewell.

Much else had changed as well. Whewell and a group of his friends had begun to modernize the concept of the natural philosopher, a project first hatched in 1812, when they met as undergraduates at Cambridge University

Each of the four men was brilliant, self-assured, and possessed of the optimism of the age: Whewell, who later created the fields of mathematical economics and the science of the tides; Charles Babbage, a mathematical genius...

At “Philosophical Breakfasts” held on Sundays after compulsory chapel services, the four students cast their young, critical eyes over science as it was then practiced, and found it wanting. They pledged to bring about nothing less than a scientific revolution—and in large part they succeeded.

Because of these men, science was transformed from the province of the amateur—the clergyman collecting fossils or beetles in his spare hours, or the wealthy gentleman conducting electrical experiments at his country estate—to the career of the professional: trained at the university, published in specialized journals, and admitted to associations open only to fellow professionals.

Darwin’s career was thus framed by the revolution brought about by these men. But he was also influenced more directly by the members of the Philosophical Breakfast Club. At Cambridge from 1828 to 1831, Darwin attended John Henslow’s botany lectures with Whewell, who—probably during their strolls to the class—suggested that Darwin read his friend Herschel’s new book, A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, which appeared the month that Darwin was taking the exams necessary to complete his degree.

Herschel’s book, aimed at a popular audience, promoted Francis Bacon’s inductive, evidence-based scientific method. “Scarcely anything in my life made so deep an impression on me” as the book, Darwin later wrote to Herschel. “It made me wish to try to add my mite to the accumulated store of natural knowledge.” In short, it sparked Darwin’s transformation from amateur naturalist into scientist.

One of the unintended consequences of the revolution wrought by the Philosophical Breakfast Club has been that the professional scientist is now less interested in, and perhaps less capable of, connecting with the broader public, sharing the new discoveries and theories that most excite the scientific community. Although there are some notable exceptions, today’s researcher has been less adept than the Victorian-era natural philosopher at engaging the public—and this estranged the general public from science. In part this is because the scientific establishment discourages its members from writing popular books and articles, considering these projects unserious, even frivolous, diversions from the real work of research. But this attitude has to change in order to mend the ever-deepening rift between science and the rest of modern culture. Today’s scientist should strive to be more like the 19th-century natural philosopher—ironically, more like those very men who created the modern scientist.

An expert on Victorian science and culture, Fulbright scholar Laura J. Snyder served as president of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science in 2009 and 2010. She is associate professor of philosophy at St. John’s University, in New York City, and also the author of Reforming Philosophy: A Victorian Debate on Science and Society. An excerpt from her new book can be accessed here.

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