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.
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