A massive biography of one of the Victorian era’s most significant all-around scientists.
Science historian Jackson sets himself the monumental task of sorting through the volumes of writing of Irish scientist John Tyndall (1820-1893), who began his career as a surveyor for the railroads. A true autodidact, in 1847 he was hired to teach at Queenwood College, where he was able to attend lectures on chemistry and botany and learned about discovery-based and child-centered learning. He also became aware of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings, which, along with those of Thomas Carlyle, influenced his work. Eventually, Tyndall began to teach lectures in physics at a time when laboratory science held little priority in British schools. He received a doctorate in Germany, where he developed his belief in the importance of molecular structure and his consummate skill in experimental design and execution. Seemingly always at work, he read widely in philosophy and wrote about his travels for publication while studying crystal structure and transmission of heat. It was the latter work that led to the discovery that Earth’s atmosphere retained heat (greenhouse effect). His work on heat conduction in glaciers (supported by his Alpine mountaineering), structure of matter, promotion of scientific curriculum for schools, and classic demonstrations of science ensured that he was famous in his own time. He was sought after not only for his lectures, but also for his congeniality as a dinner guest. He was not, however, a mathematical physicist; he was an experimentalist—one of the best—rather than a theoretician. He disproved and/or improved others’ theories and showed that pure science could lead to practical applications. The author notes a gap in Tyndall’s journals from 1871 to 1883, a fact which readers may well appreciate. The book is chock-full of lists of friends he visited and lectures given and attended, and these sections become tiresome. Readers should have more than high school physics to comprehend Tyndall’s work.
A lengthy, difficult book about a remarkable man; devoted readers will muddle through.