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«1 Second best as a researcher, second to none as a populariser? The atmospheric science of John Tyndall FRS (1820-1893) By Irena Maria McCabe A ...»

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Second best as a researcher, second to none as

a populariser?

The atmospheric science of John Tyndall FRS



Irena Maria McCabe

A dissertation submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of

doctor of philosophy

Department of Science and Technology Studies

University College London

I, Irena Maria McCabe confirm that the work presented in this thesis is my

own. Where information has been derived from other sources, I confirm that this has

been indicated in the thesis.

ABSTRACT John Tyndall, FRS (1820-1893), the eminent scientist and mountaineer, the discoverer of the greenhouse gases, has been frequently presented as chiefly a populariser of science rather than a researcher. Although he regarded this education as an important function to fulfil, his researches and discoveries reported in the publications of the Royal Society, the Royal Institution and the British Association for the Advancement of Science, constitute a testimony to his standing as a scientist, hitherto neglected by his commentators. This thesis studies his contributions to the physics of the atmosphere and their subsequent impact on meteorology, research that is relevant to today’s concerns about climate change. Tyndall, did however, also make discoveries in other branches of physics, chemistry and bacteriology.

Like many aspiring British scientists of the nineteenth century, Tyndall went to Germany as a mature student. He chose the University of Marburg to study chemistry, physics and mathematics under the renowned chemist, Robert Bunsen, the physicist Gerling and the mathematician Stegmann respectively, graduating with a PhD in applied mathematics.1 At this time Faraday’s extraordinary discovery of diamagnetism in 1846 were causing a sensation in Germany, France and Britain. Scientists eagerly studied Faraday’s research, replicating his experiments and interpreting his findings.

Faraday’s work apparently confirmed concomitant researches by Plücker on the magnetic properties of crystals. Tyndall’s pioneering contributions to the study of diamagnetism2 constituted his formative experiences as an experimentalist. He effectively challenged the opinions of the distinguished scientists, Faraday and Plücker.3 The deportment of magnetism with respect to matter provided Tyndall with a comprehensive alternative to Faraday’s views on the interaction of point forces with Tyndall (1870).

Tyndall (1851), 2, (9), 165-188 Plücker (1849), 5, 353-375; 376-382.

matter. Tyndall’s analogous investigation of radiant heat and its transmission by the atmosphere enabled him to study matter in its gaseous phase, hitherto inaccessible to the experimental process, and to participate in the all-important shaping of meteorology as a scientific discipline. The analogous interactions of matter with the forces of light and heat prompted Tyndall’s speculations on the role of the molecular structure in the modification and transmission of forces. The Tyndall Centre for the Study of Climate Change, thus named in his honour in the year 2000 by the Director of the Royal Institution, Professor Peter Day, testifies to the importance of Tyndall’s contributions to the all pervading problems which today face mankind.

This thesis also addresses his role as a leading publicist for scientific naturalism and campaigner for science education, throwing a new light on his motives. On the death of his mentor and friend, Faraday, Tyndall succeeded him as Resident Professor in charge of the Royal Institution. In this historic laboratory Tyndall devised and perfected experimental methodology for the study of matter in its gaseous phase, thought, until then to not be amenable to scientific investigation. The importance of this contribution to science, underestimated over the years, is highlighted in the thesis. The thesis also looks at his pioneering researches on gases through their interaction with radiant heat and light. It examines how he used the forces of nature as tools to probe the nature of matter. It presents one consequence of Tyndall’s work that led to the discovery of calorescence, from a new perspective.

The author of over 100 scientific papers, Tyndall is revealed as an inspiring research scientist, honoured by the Royal Society and numerous foreign academies.

He was however castigated for an inadequate knowledge of mathematics, because he concentrated on imaginative physical interpretations of theoretical notions. At times, therefore, he was seriously underestimated as a scientist, despite admiration by some for the excellence of his work. This theme is also analysed in the thesis. Emerging from this study is an image of Tyndall’s serious engagement with science, and his role as an eminent practitioner and spokesman, who viewed science as beneficial to mankind, and physics as a means of education.


I wish to thank my principal tutor Professor Hasok Chang and my subsidiary tutor Professor Steve Miller for an amazing academic experience due to their patient and inspiring guidance. My fellow students provided an essential friendly and supportive atmosphere – it is a privilege and a real pleasure to be a part of this vibrant academic community in the Department of the Science and Technology Studies. I wish to record my thanks to Professor Frank James of the Royal Institution of Great Britain for his encouragement and stimulating discussions. I am also grateful to Jane Harrison on his staff for her very efficient and cheerful assistance at all times. I would like to record my grateful thanks to Dr Catherine Jackson for her support and interest in the thesis.

I would like to put on record my thanks to the staff of the libraries of the UCL, Imperial College, the Science Museum, the University of London, the Royal Society, London Library and the British Library for their invaluable help at all times. Geoffrey Eastwood, Jim McGeever, Derek Randall, Margaret and Roger Woodall’s reading of first drafts provided support for which I am grateful.

Brian and Marion Edwards and Margaret and Roger Woodall’s friendly encouragement is much appreciated. My family’s interest has meant a great deal to me: I thank Gavin, Fiona and Ian for their forbearance.

–  –  –








1A. A Brief Introduction to Tyndall’s Life

1B. Tyndall the Researcher

1B.1 Professional Dimension, especially his Fellowship of the Royal Society and his Decline of the Royal Medal.

1B.2 The Royal Society Referees

1B.3. Other Contemporary British Appraisals

1B.4 The Foreign Opinions

1B.5. The Retrospect from the 20th Century Onwards

1C. Tyndall the Populariser

1D. Conclusion



2A. Introduction

2B. Early Influences: Ireland and England

2C. Germany

2D. Researches in Diamagnetism

2E. Tyndall and Faraday at work

2F. Rayleigh’s v. Tyndall’s and Faraday’s Mathematics

2F.1. Mathematisation of physics

2F.2. Rayleigh’s mathematics

2F.3. Faraday’s mathematics

2F.4. Tyndall and mathematics

2G. Tyndall’s Role in the research tradition at the Royal Institution

2H. Conclusion



3A. Experimental Procedures of Herschel, Leslie and Melloni

3A.1. William Herschel, Accidental Pioneer of the Science of Radiant Heat

3A.2. John Leslie

3A.3. Macedonio Melloni

3B. Tyndall’s Experimental work on Radiant Heat and Gases

3B.1. Infra-red Absorption and Radiation by Gases

3B.2. Tyndall’s Improvements on Experimental Apparatus

3B.3. Different Absorbing Powers of Different Gases and Vapours

3B.4. The Effect of Various Physical Conditions on Absorptive Power

3B.5. Physical Interpretation of Thermal Absorption and Radiation Phenomena.................. 141 3B.6. Tyndall’s Original Contributions

3C. The Magnus Challenge

3C.1. Magnus, the Doyen of German Science

3C.2. Magnus’s Experimental Challenge to Tyndall

3C.3. Tyndall’s Refinements of Experimental Procedures

3C.4. Tyndall’s Responses to Magnus

3C.5. Conclusion



4A. Physical Theory in Nineteenth-Century Germany and Britain

4A.1. Theoretical Physics in Germany

4A.2. Natural Philosophy and Theoretical Physics in Britain

4A.3. Key Themes in the Theoretical Background to Tyndall’s Work

4B. Tyndall on Mathematics and Imagination

4C. Tyndall’s Thermal Modes of Investigation and their Fruits

4C.1. The Physical Interpretation of Thermal Absorption and Radiation

4C.2. Locating Thermal Absorption and Radiation

4C.3. The Advent of Infra-red Spectroscopy

4C.4. The Composition of the Atmosphere

4C.5. Research on Ozone

4C.6. Mimicry of Nature

4C.7. Changing Role for Radiant Heat – Discovery of Calorescence

4D. Postscript on Tyndall as a Theoretician

4E. Conclusion



5A. Meteorology in Nineteenth-Century Britain

5A.1. Local Participation

5A.2. Institutional Role

5A.3. International Involvement

5A.4 Artistic Representation of Nature

5B. Tyndall’s Meteorological Researches: The Thermal Mode of Investigation

5B.1. Controversy on Tyndall’s Mimicry of Nature in the Laboratory

5B.2. Tyndall on Water Vapour in the Atmosphere

5B.3. Thermodynamics of Cloud Formation

5B.4. Carbon Dioxide and Ozone

5C. Clouds and the Sky: Tyndall’s Optical Mode of Investigation

5D. The Reception of Tyndall’s Contributions to Meteorology by ‘Thermal Mode of Investigation’

5D.1. The Nineteenth Century

5D.2. The Twentieth Century

5D.3. The Present

5E. The Reception of Tyndall’s Contributions to Meteorology by ‘Optical Mode of Investigation’

5F. Conclusion



6A. Accounting for the mixed reception of Tyndall’s research

6B.Thermal mode of investigation

6C. Discoveries with Particular Significance to Meteorology

6D. Contributions to Theoretical Physics

6E. Conclusion


–  –  –

1839 Apprentice with the Irish Ordnance Survey 1842-1843 English Ordnance Survey at Preston- after dismissal, back in Ireland 1844-1847 Railway surveyor back in England 1847-1848 Mathematics master and secretary Queenwood College Hampshire 1848-1851 Bunsen’s student at the university of Marburg; awarded a doctorate 1850 Knoblauch's physics student and a researcher in diamagnetism, Faraday’s area of interest; meets Faraday at the Royal Institution in June 1850. After several months at the university of Berlin in Magnus’s laboratory among budding German scientists, back in England meets Huxley and attends his first meeting at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, W. Thomson (later Lord Kelvin).

–  –  –

1853 Gives a Friday evening discourse at the Royal Institution; elected professor of natural philosophy.

1854 Lectures at the Royal Institution on physics and education alongside Faraday, Whewell and other eminent lecturers.

1855 Delivers his first Bakerian lecture at the Royal Society 1856 First visit to the Alps with Huxley to investigate glacier structure 1861 Inaugurates a pioneering programme of researches on radiant heat at his second Royal Society Bakerian lecture.

1864 Leading member of the X club; third Bakerian lecture 1867 On Faraday’s death, succeeds him as superintendent and resident professor at the Royal Institution 1868-1870 Discovery of new chemical reactions of light 1870-1880 Researches in microbiology, acknowledged by J. Lister 1872-1873 Lecture tour of the Unites States 1874 Belfast Address as President of the BAAS.

1876 Marriage to Lady Louisa Hamilton 1881 Fifth Bakerian lecture resuming researches on radiant heat 1887 Retirement from the Royal Institution

–  –  –


John Tyndall (1820-1893), FRS, professor of natural philosophy at the Royal Institution of Great Britain (1853-1887), succeeded M. Faraday (1791-1867) as resident professor in charge of the Royal Institution in 1867.

He studied chemistry, physics and mathematics at the University of Marburg 1848-50 in the department of the famous chemist, R. Bunsen, graduating with a PhD in mechanics. His research skills were further developed in the department of physics investigating the pioneering discoveries of Julius Plücker of Bonn and Faraday in diamagnetism, continued at the University of Berlin. Tyndall returned to the UK in 1851, at first returning to occasional teaching at Queenwood School in Hampshire, and translating and reviewing science for the Philosophical Magazine. Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London 1852, and appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in 1853, he resumed his researches on diamagnetism and related subjects. At first Faraday’s colleague, he became his successor as Resident Professor and Superintendent at the Royal Institution. He pursued a spectacular career in physics then in bacteriology collaborating with the foremost surgeon of the day, Joseph Lister.

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