Philosophy Professor Takes the Stage at TEDGlobal Conference

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July 26, 2012

Joining a roster that includes some of the world's leading authors, scientists and intellectuals, Laura J. Snyder, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy at St. John’s University, was a featured speaker at the celebrated TEDGlobal conference, held this year in Edinburgh.

TED, which stands for technology, entertainment and design, is a nonprofit organization formed in 1984 to bring together influential thinkers from these diverse worlds.  Past conferences have featured Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Al Gore, Jane Goodall, Peter Gabriel and Arianna Huffington.

Dr. Snyder spoke on “The Invention of the Scientist” and the origins of modern scientific inquiry. “It was so much fun to tell it,” she wrote in her blog after addressing an audience of more than 800. “What was thrilling was how fascinated this group of nonacademics and nonhistorians were by the philosophical and historical story I wove for them.”

This year’s conference, June 25 – 29, focused on the concept of “radical openness,” and “what openness, collaboration and mutual understanding in an ultraconnected world will mean for human potential.” Dr. Snyder’s talk took place on June 28.

Dr. Snyder answered this call with a presentation about four influential men who, nearly 200 years ago, launched a revolution in the scientific community. Her lecture was based on her award-winning book, The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World (2011).

“While eating and drinking, the four men (Charles Babbage, John Herschel, Richard Jones and William Whewell) talked about science, and how it had stagnated from the days of the scientific revolution in the 17th century,” Dr. Snyder said in her TED Talk. The men called their meetings “philosophical breakfasts.”

She continued, “It was time for a new revolution, which they pledged to bring about. What is remarkable and inspiring about these men is that, by the end of their lives, they had succeeded — even beyond their wildest dreams.”

Since each TED Talk is limited to 15 minutes, Dr. Snyder had the formidable task of explaining only the most essential elements of her book to an educated though nonspecialist audience.

“To me," she said, "it was not at all an exercise in ‘dumbing down’ or ‘selling out.’ Rather, it was quite similar to what we as teachers try to do all the time: take specialist research and present it in a way that students can understand and learn from. It was wonderful to be able to bring my story to an audience of movers and shakers in the technology, scientific and business worlds.”

A Fulbright Scholar and past president of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science (HOPOS), Dr. Snyder has taught at St. John’s University since 1996. The Philosophical Breakfast Club, an “official selection” of the TED Book Club, has earned favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Economist and other major publications.

“I’m really still digesting the whole experience,” Dr. Snyder said of her first TED conference. “I met so many fascinating and clever men and women who have incredible levels of interest in ideas — an interest unmoored from the kind of intellectual agenda or self-interest found at many academic conferences.”