Victorian Web: John Tyndall (1820-1893)

From Victorian Web:

John Tyndall (1820-1893)

John van Wyhe, Senior Fellow, National University of Singapore; Researcher, History & philosophy of science, Cambridge.

John Tyndall was born in Ireland as the son of a local constable. Tyndall attended a common primary school and joined the Irish Ordance Survey in 1839. Later he did surveying work in England and worked later worked on railway construction in the boom of the 1840s. In 1847 he began to teach mathematics at Queenwood College Hampshire. In 1848 Tyndall went to study in Germany where he was one of the first British subjects to receive the new PhD at Marburg. His years in Germany while still a young man turned Tyndall into something of a naturphilosophisch romantic pantheist. Tyndall’s major scientific work was in atmospheric gases. He also made many useful inventions. In the 1850s he succeeded Faraday in giving popular science lectures at the Royal Institution in London where Tyndall became a lecturer in physics. Tyndall became one of the leading figures in Victorian science; he was a member of the famous X Club along with other notables like T.H. Huxley and Herbert Spencer.

In 1874 Tyndall gave his famous Belfast Address before the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. It was one of the most prestigious places from which to pronounce on what men of science should be doing. Tyndall famously used his address to argue for the superior authority of science over religious or non-rationalist explanations. By the time of this address the Association had largely been taken over by the young guard, men like T.H. Huxley and Tyndall. Nevertheless, Tyndall’s bold statement for rationalism and natural law was made in Belfast, a stronghold of religious belief then as now and so it was taken as an aggressive attack on religion. The address was popularly believed to advocate materialism as the true philosophy of science. It remains a powerful call for rationalism, consistency, and scepticism.

Further reading

  • Tyndall. The Belfast Address.
  • Tyndall. Faraday as a Discoverer (html with formatting) & Gutenberg text; Making of America
  • Tyndall. Fragments of science for unscientific people: a series of detached essays, lectures, and reviews. Making of America
  • Tyndall. Heat considered as a mode of motion: being a course of twelve lectures delivered at the Royal institution of Great Britain in the season of 1862. Making of America
  • Tyndall. Hours of exercise in the Alps. Making of America
  • Tyndall. Light and electricity: notes of two courses of lectures before the Royal institution of Great Britain. Making of America
  • Tyndall. Scientific addresses. Making of America
  • Tyndall. Sound. A course of eight lectures delivered at the Royal institution of Great Britain Making of America
  • Burchfield, J. A. ‘John Tyndall – a biographical sketch’ In John Tyndall, Essays on a Natural Philosopher Royal Dublin Society. 1981.
  • Frank Turner and B. Lightman et al. Victorian Faith in Crisis: Essays on Continuity and Change in Nineteenth-Century Religious Belief. London, 1990.
  • Lightman, Bernard. The origins of Agnosticism: Victorian unbelief and the limits of knowledge. 1987.
  • The Athenæum: John Tyndall
Published in: on July 31, 2008 at 9:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Michael S. Reidy: “Mountaineering and Physics: Practicing Science Vertically”

My advisor and whom I will be working with on the John Tyndall Corresponce Project, Michael S. Reidy, gave a talk on Tyndall for MSU’s physics department (which I missed). Here is the abstract:

Mountaineering and Physics: Practicing Science Vertically

Through the work of the experimental physicist John Tyndall, I will analyze the close relationship formed in the mid nineteenth century between the rise of the physical sciences and the equally dramatic rise of mountaineering. John Tyndall is acknowledged as one of the premier physicists in the nineteenth century. He was director of the Royal Institution for over thirty years, and along with groundbreaking research in heat, electricity, and magnetism, he worked throughout his career to popularize the study of physics. He was also a pioneering mountaineer in the Swiss Alps. After receiving training in surveying and working as a railway engineer, Tyndall studied the magnetic properties of the earth’s rocks, particularly the cleavage planes of slate, which in turn led him to similar studies on the fracturing of glaciers, work that relied heavily on arguments in thermodynamics. His work on glaciers and thermodynamics led him to further study the topic of radiant heat, particularly the manner in which atmospheric gases absorb solar radiation. This led him to his next research topic, the scattering of light by particles in the atmosphere, and to his now famous explanation of global warming and his equally famous contributions to the spontaneous generation debate. Note that Tyndall’s scientific research programs took an obvious vertical orientation, from the ground up. As he practices his science, from rock quarries to glaciers to the study of the atmosphere, Tyndall’s interests in the fundamental forces of nature brought him to the summits of mountains. Or, perhaps, as he climbed mountains, he found that he could more readily answer questions concerned with the very nature of physics. In either case, his science and mountaineering were tellingly mixed. As one of the leading definers and popularizers of his discipline, Tyndall’s life and work suggest that physics was at least partly defined on the sides of mountains.

Published in: on July 31, 2008 at 9:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Professor awarded prestigious US grant to study British scientist

From York’s Daily Bulletin (7/31/2008):

York humanities Professor Bernard Lightman, a prolific editor and writer in the field of Victorian science, likes to challenge himself with increasingly complex research projects. And he’s being rewarded for it.

Lightman recently received a prestigious $306,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for his latest research venture, the John Tyndall correspondence project. The objective is to publish the collected correspondence of prominent British physicist John Tyndall (1820-1893).

A leading figure in the debates over evolution, Tyndall was a member of the powerful group of scientific naturalists that included Thomas Huxley. Tyndall was also among the first to recognize the earth’s natural greenhouse effect and the role played by various gases in this process (hence Britain’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research).

Despite his significant role in the history of science, published versions of Tyndall’s correspondence are scarce. This is partly due to the bizarre circumstances surrounding his death. Tyndall was poisoned by his wife when she accidentally administered an overdose of medication that he had been taking for insomnia. She was so wracked with guilt that she decided to write the definitive life and letters of Tyndall and carefully guarded access to the large cache of letters in her possession. She died before completing the project. However, she did manage to collect the majority of Tyndall’s letters, now housed at the Royal Institution based in London, England. Approximately 2,000 more letters are located at the British Library and other archival locations around the world.

“These letters open a window onto many important aspects of 19th-century British science, culture and society, and provide important insights into the man himself,” says Lightman.

The York professor first became interested in Tyndall as a graduate student pursuing his thesis on agnosticism at Brandeis University. The term “agnosticism” was coined by Huxley in 1869 to distinguish his position from both atheism and theism. Tyndall shared many of Huxley’s views on this issue and was among the earliest agnostics.

Lightman now has copies of most of the 8,000 letters scattered around the world, so the first phase of the project – locating, collecting and digitizing all the letters – is nearly complete. The second phase of the project involves transcribing all of the letters. To date, about 1,000 of the letters have been transcribed. The plan is to transcribe the rest over the next five years.

This project arises out of Lightman’s earlier decision to undertake a biography of Tyndall. In the spring of 2006, Lightman received a three-year grant from the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) for the biography, after which he hired a team of graduate students and one postdoctoral fellow, James Elwick, to aid him with the research. When his team began collecting and transcribing the letters for the biography it soon became evident that the Tyndall correspondence embodied a project in and of itself. However, Lightman also recognized that he would need to acquire further funding to make the second project viable. That’s when he approached the Mellon Foundation.

The third phase of the project will involve editing the correspondence, a process over which Lightman will act as editor. This phase will begin once all of the transcriptions have been completed in about five years. Teams of scholars will edit and annotate about eight volumes of letters. They will be published in hard copy and put on the Internet. “Dealing with so many letters will be a big logistical challenge,” says Lightman, “but I hope this project sparks an interest in both Tyndall and the importance of his time period.”

Lightman is still working on Tyndall’s biography and hopes to have both that and the correspondence project complete within the next six to eight years.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is a not-for-profit US-based foundation that has been involved in funding other Canadian research projects, such as the Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproduction, the Dictionary of Old English, the Records of Early English Drama (University of Toronto) and the Benjamin Disraeli Letters (Queen’s University).

Published in: on July 31, 2008 at 9:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Welcome to Transcribing Tyndall: Letters of a Victorian Scientist

Welcome to Transcribing Tyndall: Letters of a Victorian Scientist, my new blog to go along with a research project I will be working on at Montana State University-Bozeman starting in September 2008. Earlier this year, my undergraduate advisor approached me about joining him to work on the John Tyndall Correspondence Project, the objective being to transcribe and publish all the known correspondence of the nineteenth-century Irish physicist and popularizer of science, John Tyndall. Basically, he said he needed a graduate student (I am starting the history graduate program this fall) to work with him to type out a particular set of Tyndall’s correspondence from digital images of the actual letters previously prepared by historian of science Bernard Lightman, who studies Victorian science and has focused on Tyndall before.

I would like to use this blog to share items I came across about Tyndall’s life and work (online or elsewhere), the information about Tyndall and Victorian science gleaned from the letters I transcribe (which will mostly deal with Tyndall’s time mountaineering in the Alps, and will depend on the approval of those heading the project), and the experience of transcribing the letters itself. Through August I hope to read up on Tyndall a little, so that I am familiar with the man whose letters I will work with. My advisor is currently researching Tyndall himself (hence the reason for him being involved in the project), so I think I will be reading something of his, as well as publications of Tyndall’s, journal articles about him, etc. Hopefully I can post about some of the stuff I read.

A little about me: I am originally from southern California, where I did my general education at a community college, and was an intended biology major at San Diego State University before moving to Montana. I came to Montana State University thinking I was going to study paleontology, but before I even started my first semester I found out about the history of science option through the history department, met a professor who became my advisor, and changed my major. I generally focused on the life and work of Charles Darwin as an undergraduate student, and I also did a minor in Museum Studies, which brought me the opportunity to do a summer internship with a historian in Yellowstone National Park. The paper I wrote for that internship about religious language in descriptions of Yellowstone will be published as a shorter article in Yellowstone Science, I believe, later this summer. I keep a blog about Darwin and the history of natural history in general, called The Dispersal of Darwin. And I am married with a two-and-a-half year old son.

I will be pretty busy this fall, with 20 hours/week working on Tyndall and my three graduate classes. Fortunately the project comes with a stipend, so I won’t have to worry about working during the semester.