Library book sale finds

At two recent library book sales I have come across some Tyndall books. First, I found Hours of Exercise in the Alps (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1896), a collection of writings about mountaineering. Second, as I scanned through the titles on the spines of old books at another sale, the word science caught my eye, then I saw fragments, then the name Tyndall. Thus, I now own a copy of the second volume of Tyndall’s Fragments of Science (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1905), which contains articles and lectures regarding religion, prayer, Darwin, evolution, his Belfast Address, and spontaneous generation.

Book sales are so much fun!

Published in: on October 12, 2010 at 9:08 pm  Comments (4)  
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Tyndall on Darwin

I had a chance to look at Thomas Glick’s new book, What about Darwin?: All Species of Opinion from Scientists, Sages, Friends, and Enemies Who Met, Read, and Discussed the Naturalist Who Changed the World, at a Barnes & Noble in Seattle a little over a week ago.

Seattle Barnes & Noble - Thomas Glick's "What about Darwin?"

There is one entry for John Tyndall:

Seattle Barnes & Noble - Tyndall on Darwin

Here’s the text, which comes from Tyndall’s famous Belfast Address:

Mr. Darwin shirks no difficulty; and, saturated as the subject was with his own thought, he must have known better than his critics the weakness as well as the strength of his theory. This of course would be of little avail [43/44] were his object a temporary dialectic victory instead of the establishment of a truth which he means to be everlasting. But he takes no pains to disguise the weakness he has discerned; nay, he takes every pains to bring it into the strongest light. His vast resources enable him to cope with objections started by himself and others, so as to leave the final impression upon the reader’s mind that, if they be not completely answered, they certainly are not fatal. Their negative force being thus destroyed, you are free to be influenced by the vast positive mass of evidence he is able to bring before you. This largeness of knowledge and readiness of resource render Mr. Darwin the most terrible of antagonists. Accomplished naturalists have levelled heavy and sustained criticisms against him—not always with the view of fairly weighing his theory, but with the express intention of exposing its weak points only. This does not irritate him. He treats every objection with a soberness and thoroughness which even Bishop Butler might be proud to imitate, surrounding each fact with its appropriate detail, placing it in its proper relations, and usually giving it a significance which, as long as it was kept isolated, failed to appear. This is done without a trace of ill-temper. He moves over the subject with the passionless strength of a glacier; and the grinding of the rocks is not always without a counterpart in the logical pulverization of the objector.

Published in: on October 4, 2010 at 8:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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John Tyndall’s Vertical Physics

A new article in the latest issue of Physics in Perspective by Michael S. Reidy looks at the relationship between science and mountaineering in the nineteenth century, using John Tyndall as a case study (Reidy is currently working on a book-length treatment of this topic, exploring many figures, including Joseph Dalton Hooker):

John Tyndall’s Vertical Physics: From Rock Quarries to Icy Peaks

Michael S. Reidy

Abstract I analyze, through the work of the Irish physicist John Tyndall (1820–1893), the close relationship formed in the mid-nineteenth century between advances in the physical sciences and the rise of mountaineering as a sport. Along with groundbreaking experimental research in the physical sciences, Tyndall worked throughout his career to define and popularize the study of physics. He also was a pioneering mountaineer during the golden age of mountaineering. As he practiced his science, from rock quarries to the study of the blue sky, Tyndall’s interests in the fundamental forces of Nature brought him to the summits of mountains. His sojourns to the mountains, in turn, affected the manner in which he approached his researches. His science and mountaineering were tellingly mixed, and worked in unison to shape public perceptions of what physicists did during a period of increasing specialization and popularization of the field.

Published in: on June 18, 2010 at 7:31 am  Leave a Comment  
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Tyndall on Prayer

I have a post up on my other blog about Tyndall on prayer. I put it there so it can be viewed by many more people than normally see the blog.

Published in: on May 6, 2010 at 9:42 am  Leave a Comment  
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More antievolutionism in the New York Times

I came across another piece of antievolutionism in the New York Times, of 19 May 1886, in “What Deaf-Mutes Can Do”:

If Prof. Tyndall had been present yesterday afternoon at the pupils’ exhibition of the New-York Institute for Deaf-Mutes, Washington Heights, he would have been compelled to admit that even when the faculty of articulate speech is gone there are still left distinctive differences between the lowest human being and the highest of the animals, which make the interval separating them impassable.

The article is here.

Published in: on May 4, 2010 at 8:24 am  Leave a Comment  
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“The efficient defender of a fellow scientific man”

I am near finishing my professional paper (not a thesis) for my masters degree, titled “‘The efficient defender of a fellow scientific man’: John Tyndall, Darwin, and Preaching Pure Science in America.” Let me know if you’d like to read a draft, but  it still has some problems to work out.

Published in: on April 20, 2010 at 7:41 am  Leave a Comment  
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Tyndall Blogged: Freud’s Friends and Enemies One Hundred Years Later, Part 1

Excerpted from Psychology Today’s blog Cultural Commentary (2 February 2010):

Freud’s Friends and Enemies One Hundred Years Later, Part 1

Preamble: In 1909 Sigmund Freud visited the United States for the first and only time. He journeyed to Worchester, Massachusetts at the invitation of G. Stanley Hall, the president of Clark University, in connection with the 20th anniversary celebration of the founding of America’s original graduate student only academic research institution. Speaking in German to a who’s who of psychologists and other social scientists (many of whom would have been multilingual in those days) Freud delivered a series of now famous lectures on psychoanalysis. One hundred years later, on October 3, 2009, Clark University commemorated one of the most significant events in its history with a series of Freud centennial keynote addresses, answering the general question “Does the Mind Still Matter?” My own lecture, originally titled “Cleansing of the Soul: Freud’s Friends and Enemies One Hundred Years Later” will appear in Psychology Today over the next few days as a “Cultural Commentary” blog trilogy. Part 1 of the trilogy begins below.


And despite all the attention in recent decades to Freud’s early interests in the brain sciences, and all the contemporary interest in either replacing psychoanalysis with neurology and pharmacology or turning Freud into a crypto-biologist, I read him to be pretty much in sympathy with the following non-reductive (and candidly dualistic) interpretation of the (in my view still unsolved) mind/body problem, as expressed by the famous 19th century British physicist John Tyndall. In 1868 Tyndall, who was one of the great natural scientists of that century and an erstwhile supporter of Charles Darwin’s work in evolutionary biology, had this to say about the connection between mind and body, between soulful realities and physical realities, between the facts of consciousness and the physics of the brain. He said it in his Presidential Address to the Physical Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Quoting Tyndall:

“The passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable. Granted that a definite thought, and a definite molecular action in the brain occur simultaneously, we do not possess the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass by a process of reasoning from the one phenomenon to the other. They appear together but we do not know why. Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened and illuminated as to enable us to see and feel the very molecules of the brain, were we capable of following all their motions, all their groupings, all their electric discharges, if such there be, and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, we should be as far as ever from the solution of the problem. How are these physical processes connected with the facts of consciousness? The chasm between the two classes of phenomena would still remain intellectually impassable.”

Notice that John Tyndall takes it for granted that events in consciousness and events in the brain appear together. Nevertheless, as he suggests, the mere observation of mental and physical event co-occurrence is not the end of the mind-body problem as a problem, but only its puzzling beginning, which must, given that the chasm to which he points is in the nature of things, end in puzzlement.

Of course, Tyndall’s and Freud’s caution about the mysterious and mind-boggling theoretical or intellectual disjunction between the facts of consciousness and our understanding of the nature and workings of the physical world are not heeded very much these days, at least not in the biological, medical and cognitive sciences in the academy. And it is quite fashionable these days to be of the opinion (or at least to confidently assert) that the mind/body problem has been empirically solved by recent work in the brain sciences using new observational technologies which show that thoughts occur simultaneously with physical events in the brain. Yet that observation is not really news, given that it is an empirical fact that John Tyndall was well aware of in 1868 and Descartes was well aware of even earlier. As Tyndall makes crystal clear that fact of temporal contiguity is just one of the reasons for positing of the mind/body problem in the first place and not a theoretical or intellectual solution to the problem at all.

Read the entire post here.

Published in: on February 5, 2010 at 5:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

Was Tyndall struck by lightning?

From The Washington Post of June 4, 1886 (p. 2, col. 2):

IF you have firmly resolved to commit suicide despite the anxious expostulations of your friends, take notice that being struck by lightning has been pronounced absolutely painless after a careful chemical analysis at the hands of Professor Tyndall.

Published in: on January 18, 2010 at 11:21 am  Leave a Comment  

Tyndall Died Today in 1893

From Today in Science History:

John Tyndall (born 2 August 1820, died 4 December 1893). British physicist who demonstrated why the sky is blue. His initial scientific reputation was based on a study of diamagnetism. He carried out research on radiant heat, studied spontaneous generation and the germ theory of disease, glacier motion, sound, the diffusion of light in the atmosphere and a host of related topics. He showed that ozone was an oxygen cluster rather than a hydrogen compound, and invented the firemans respirator and made other less well-known inventions including better fog-horns. One of his most important inventions, the light pipe, has led to the development of fibre optics. The modern light instrument is known as the gastroscope, which enables internal observations of a patient’s stomach without surgery. Tyndall was a very popular lecturer.

TISH provides a quote:

Their business (those who believe in evolution) is not with the possible, but the actual – not with a world which mightbe, but with a world that is. This they explore with a courage not unmixed with reverance, and according to methods which, like the quality of a tree, are tested by their fruits. They have but one desire – to know the truth. They have but one fear – to believe a lie. (1870)

Does anyone know what this quote is from?

Published in: on December 5, 2009 at 9:17 am  Leave a Comment  

York prof looks at the correspondence of scientist John Tyndall

From York’s Daily Bulletin (November 26, 2009):

York prof looks at the correspondence of scientist John Tyndall

What do the colour of the sky, the greenhouse effect and mountaineering have in common? The answer: John Tyndall (1820-1893), a leading figure in the 19th-century debates over evolution and a celebrated Victorian physicist. His research was expansive: he was the first person to explain why the sky is blue and the first to prove the greenhouse effect in the earth’s atmosphere. He was also a pioneering mountain climber. York humanities Professor Bernard Lightman and his international team of collaborators are hoping to shed light on his thinking.

Tyndall was a huge figure in scientific circles during the 19th century, but we don’t know a great deal about him. He is best remembered today for his controversial Belfast Address in 1874 to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in which he advocated the supremacy of scientific thought over religious belief. After that, it is as if he dropped off of the historical record. This is due in part to the fact that his correspondence was not readily available to be studied. Lightman and company are remedying this by combining international collaboration and modern technology to resurrect Tyndall’s correspondence.

Lightman, based in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, and his Montana State University co-applicant, Professor Michael Reidy, recently won US$580,000 in funding – to be disbursed over three years – from the United States National Science Foundation (similar to the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council of Canada). The pair are completing a research project titled “John Tyndall and Nineteenth-Century Science”, which involves locating, collecting, digitizing, transcribing, editing, annotating and eventually publishing John Tyndall’s correspondence, comprising more than 8,000 letters that are scattered throughout the world.

Lightman modelled this endeavour on the Darwin Correspondence Project, a similar but much larger UK-based undertaking involving the letters of Tyndall’s friend and contemporary, the famous naturalist Charles Darwin.

In preparing their grant application, Lightman and Reidy considered trying something unusual for humanities research, thinking it might
improve their chances of receiving the award. They proposed bringing the collaborative and organizational techniques of scientific research to humanities research – where researchers traditionally work alone, not in teams – and to see how education could benefit from new tools and practices. They also recognized it as an effective use of limited resources.

The Tyndall Correspondence Project, says Lightman, wouldn’t be possible without modern technology. “I wouldn’t have even conceived of doing this 10 or 15 years ago,” he says. The logistics would have been too overwhelming, says Lightman, and unlike the resources available to the Darwin Project’s researchers, the budget for Lightman’s project is comparatively small. So Lightman and his team – at universities in Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US – have leveraged the processing power of computers and the Internet to make the information-pooling of their decentralized operations more efficient.

The Royal Institution of Great Britain transferred most of the letters, about 6,000 of them, to microfilm. The remainder of the letters came from about 30 other archival locations. Lightman had them all digitized to TIFF format, allowing for electronic display and distribution. (The incongruity of sending 19th-century letters by e-mail doesn’t escape him.)

Transcriptions undergo a filtering process. Junior members of the team transcribe the letters, including annotations and palimpsests, and send the transcriptions to the more senior members – who are more familiar with the idiosyncrasies of Tyndall’s written words – for proofing. Senior members refine the transcription, eliminating errors and increasing accuracy.

A not-uncommon challenge that might be unfamiliar to contemporary writers is ink jar spills. Correspondents, not wishing to waste paper, frequently simply turned the page over and continued to write on the back. The team encountered many such problems, which took many forms.

Two of Lightman’s assistants are Bethune College academic adviser James Elwick, who is serving as the project coordinator, and York PhD candidate in history, Steve Bunn, who is working as the logistics coordinator. The pair have developed a number of techniques to facilitate transcription, a process based in trial and error. They started out thinking that optical character recognition technology – software that translates text on printed, typewritten or handwritten documents into electronically editable text – would be the perfect tool for them. However, they soon discovered it was only about 80 per cent accurate, creating more work as human transcribers were needed to verify the computer’s interpretation, and the technique was quickly abandoned. “You can’t divine the intention behind it, which is really the secret behind a lot of transcription,” says Elwick.

Nevertheless, Elwick and Bunn continued to explore different techniques to optimize the transcription process. For instance, they discovered the benefits of computer-voice playback. After researchers have transcribed a letter to a Microsoft Word document, they get a computer voice to read it back aloud as they review the original text of the letter. This allows them to proof the transcription without having to resort to moving their eyes back and forth between the original and the copy. To increase legibility, they often magnify and stretch the digitized images. To remove visual background clutter, they illuminate, darken or increase the contrast as required.

To enable international collaboration, the team started out trying to e-mail files to one another. However, the files were huge and file-size limits on e-mail constrained them. They tried Web-based e-mail systems like Google but, at 25 megabytes, they too were limiting. They tried using FTP sites, but they found them to be user-unfriendly. They then tried a service similar to York’s Dropbox, but it removed message attachments if not retrieved within seven days. They finally settled on a Web-based service that allows them to store information online and affords access to the information by various subscribers.

Complementing this, the pair discovered an inexpensive file management program that allows them to preview the contents of files before opening them, an hour-saving boon when exploring numerous files. It also tracks the accessing of files – who, when, what changes were made etc. – and allows researchers to leave messages for one another. It’s a virtual laboratory occupied by international collaborators.

Elwick is always on the lookout for extra tools and has discovered that new accessories often beget new capabilities. Recent additions to their collection include a Webcam, which he subsequently realized would come in very handy when training new and remote transcribers. They plan to use it for video-conferencing too. They also discovered some Web-based polling software that eases the task of scheduling meetings by removing the need for endless e-mailing back and forth.

Not all of the group’s activities occur remotely. In the summer of 2010, some members of the team will meet at a conference in Leeds, UK, followed by a conference on evolutionary naturalism at York in the spring of 2011. Lightman plans to have all the transcribing done in about three and a half more years. “The hope is that, by then, we’ll have people lined up to edit each volume of the correspondence,” says Lightman. A year later, he hopes to have the correspondence available to researchers both in hard-copy format and in a text-searchable version on the Web.

“We hope, in the end, to galvanize a community of scholars around themes raised through an intense study of John Tyndall,” said Lightman. “These themes include the relationship between science and religion, the popularization and professionalization of science, and advances in physics, glaciology, climatology and spontaneous generation, each of which individually and collectively played fundamental roles in the development of modern science.” In the end, his goal is to make the 19th-century figure of John Tyndall better known.

For more information on the Tyndall Correspondence Project, visit it online. For more on Lightman’s work as it relates to John Tyndall, see YFile, July 31, 2008.

Submitted by David Wallace, communications coordinator, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies

Published in: on December 4, 2009 at 10:07 pm  Comments (1)  
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