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A long-awaited biography does justice to John Tyndall, a pioneering climate researcher and science advocate

The Ascent of John Tyndall: Victorian Scientist, Mountaineer, and Public Intellectual

Roland Jackson
Oxford University Press
2018
592 pp.
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In his day, the Victorian physicist and science popularizer John Tyndall was as famous and controversial a figure as Charles Darwin. Unlike Darwin, Tyndall slipped into obscurity following his death in 1893. This is a shame. He has much to teach us about the prominent role of science in Victorian culture.

A lively, charismatic figure, Tyndall left behind a copious correspondence and an engagingly written journal, all of which has been exploited by Roland Jackson in a long-awaited biography. Jackson’s book arrives just in time to help situate Tyndall’s work on heat in the atmosphere—which has recently seen him dubbed an anachronistic “father” of global warming—within the context of a life bursting with science and much else besides.

Born to an Anglo-Irish family in County Carlow, Ireland, Tyndall came to England as a jobbing surveyor but, thanks to his charismatic lecturing style, quickly ascended to the heights of scientific society. In 1853, he became professor of natural philosophy at the Royal Institution, following in the footsteps of Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday.

Using his prominent position and powerful alliances with like-minded scientists (among them Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s “bulldog”), Tyndall became an outspoken advocate for a newly emboldened form of science. “We claim, and we shall wrest, from theology the entire domain of cosmological theory,” was his most notorious rallying cry, designed to rattle the cages of the Anglican establishment.

Science, for Tyndall, had the power to illuminate every aspect of a world that never stopped eliciting his sense of wonder. He loved to tinker, building devices with which to test the connections between natural phenomena; the unity of nature was a key conceptual touchstone for him.

He put his considerable experimental skills to work doing research on fundamental physical phenomena such as light, heat, sound, and magnetism. This included work on the absorption of heat by different gases (including carbon dioxide and water vapor), as well as studies of the motion of glaciers, the color of the sky, and the vibrations of so-called “sensitive flames” caused by sound waves. He also put the same basic insights to work in intensely practical matters, often of public safety, consulting for the government on the best technology for lighthouses and foghorns and how to filter the air in firemen’s respirators.

Tyndall’s social life was, if anything, even busier and more varied than his research life. Both the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson and the philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle were boyhood heroes who became close friends.

Tyndall was also notable for his European connections. Unusually for the time, he studied for his Ph.D. in Marburg, Germany, under Robert Bunsen and later translated works by German chemists and physicists into English.

As important as Tyndall’s social contacts were, in Jackson’s telling, the sheer quantity of details becomes overwhelming—as indeed it was for Tyndall. Nature provided not only a key site of scientific inquiry but also an increasingly necessary respite from the stress of his busy urban life. In the Alps, he sought escape from the city but found relief not in rest but in a different kind of activity—vigorous exercise, often accompanied by risky ascents, and similarly intense field measurements of glacier flow, meteorological phenomena, and floating matter in the air.

Jackson recounts Tyndall’s fascinating life with impressive clarity. By keeping his focus so tightly on Tyndall the man, however, he loses the opportunity to draw key conclusions about Victorian science more generally. Tyndall mixed scientific celebrity with risk-taking and experimental finesse. His movements between the lecture theater, the laboratory, and the mountains, to say nothing of his social climbing, tell us what it took to make authoritative statements about nature at a time when the cultural value of science was vehemently debated.

Tyndall’s fame owed much to his writing, especially his thrilling accounts of his mountaineering exploits (which included an early ascent of the Weisshorn and a shoulder of the Matterhorn) and his engaging books on heat, sound, and water. These remained in print after his death and were read by many who later cited them as having inspired them to become scientists.

Tyndall’s death, in 1893 at the age of 73, was accidental. His wife, Louisa, some 25 years younger than he, accidentally administered an extra dose of his sleeping medication. “My darling,” said Tyndall when he realized what had happened, “you have killed your John.”

Grief and guilt inspired Louisa to write a biography that would do justice to her husband, but she was unable to complete the task. When she died, some 47 years after Tyndall, his entire generation had also gone. And so it is that Roland Jackson’s admirably complete biography is the first serious biography to appear since a patchy production appeared in 1945, soon after Louisa’s death. It’s about time.

About the author

The reviewer is the author of The Newton Papers: The Strange and True Odyssey of Isaac Newton’s Manuscripts (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014).