The invention of the scientist: Laura Snyder at TEDGlobal 2012

Posted by: Ben Lillie

Laura Snyder

A new word for a new profession

Laura Snyder begins with a scene from June 24, 1833. It’s a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and an elderly man stands up to make a comment. It’s Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He stands up and demands, “You must stop calling yourselves Natural Philosophers.” He believed that true philosophers, like him, spent their time thinking about the Universe, not mucking around in pits and mud.

Anger filled the room, but William Whewell stood and agreed that an appropriate term did not exist, but that by analogy with artist, they could form the word “scientist.” This was only 179 years ago. “What,” asks Snyder, “had changed to make a new name necessary?”

Prior to this event, the people who studied science were talented amateurs. They were independently wealthy, or they funded themselves with other professions. After this moment, they were professionals

The Philosophical Breakfast Club

In the winters of 1812 and 1813, a remarkable group of four men came together: Charles Babbage, John Herschel, Richard Jones, William Whewell. Snyder introduces us to each of them: Babbage, of course, invented the first computer. Herschel was an astronomer who mapped the stars, and in his spare time invented photography. Jones was an economist who inspired Marx. Whewell spearheaded global research with his work on tides, and invented the words anode, cathode, ion, and scientist.

The four held “Philosophical Breakfasts.” They would talk, amid much drink, about science and how it had stagnated. They pledged to bring about a revolution. By the end of their lives they had succeeded.

Snyder shows four changes that the four breakfast-clubbers created:

1. Inductive, evidence-based method

This premise was introduced by Bacon. But in 1809, David Ricardo was arguing that economics should use a deductive method — to start from a premise and reason from there. According to Jones, this was an ingenious system that was yet, unfortunately, “utterly inconsistent with the past and present condition of mankind.” The problem, says Snyder, is that a group was pushing for this to be adopted in all science. The four pushed for induction — relying on data to draw conclusions — to be used in all the sciences, and that is the model used today.

2. Science for the public good

“Previously,” says Snyder, “it was believed that scientific knowledge should be used for the good of the King and Queen, or for personal gain.” Harbormasters, for example, would gather data about the tides — vital for shipping and trade — and share it for a price. Whewell, by contrast, produced a vast tidal study that was provided freely.

All four lobbied for money to build Babbage’s computational engines, says Snyder, “because they believed these engines would have a huge impact on society.” Before that, most calculations had to be done with the help of tables, which were assembled by people calculating massive numbers of, well, numbers. (Interestingly, these people were called “computers.”) Not surprisingly, they were riddled with error. The difference engine would be able to make these calculations accurately.

Two models of those computational engines have recently been built in the Science Museum in London. The later analytical engine was the first computer in the modern sense, with central memory and a central processor, and was programmable with punch cards. None of the engines, however, were built in Babbage’s day, in part because, as Snyder laments, no one was convinced they would have value for the public.

Laura Snyder

3. New scientific institutions

The Royal Society, once the center of scientific inquiry, had become a gentlemen’s club. Members of the breakfast club founded new societies. These societies required that members were active researchers, and they reinstated the Q&A after papers, “a practice that had become regarded as ‘ungentlemanly.’”

Even more than that, Snyder say, women were given a place for the first time. Members could bring their wives and daughters to social functions, but they began to infiltrate the scientific sessions. Later, these same societies were the first to admit women as full members.

4. External funding for science

Before they had the name, scientists were expected to fund their own projects. Occasionally there were prizes, such as the longitude problem, but those were only given after the discovery was made. The new societies began to use extra money to give grants. This allowed less wealthy scientists to participate in research, and also encouraged thinking outside the box — since more resources were available, and researchers could take chances. Eventually other societies, including the Royal Society, followed suit.

So, the Philosophical Breakfast Club helped invent modern science. “That,” says Snyder, “is the heroic part of their story.” But there is a flip side, Snyder says: “They would have been deeply disturbed by the separation by science and the rest of culture.” The professionalization of science leaves nonscientists with a shocking lack of science literacy — only 28% of American adults know some basic science concepts.

“Once scientists became members of a professional group, they were slowly walled off from the rest of us,” Snyder says. “There was no such disjunction in the 19th century.” The members of the club wrote books and articles for a general audience, an activity that was seen, not seen as diversion from real work, not as a danger to tenure (knowing “hmmm”s from the audience here) but part of the scientific labor.

“We have forgotten,” says Snyder, “that science is not only for scientists.”

Photos: James Duncan Davidson