Book review: ‘The Ascent of John Tyndall’ by Roland Jackson

A long-overdue biography of the Victorian scientist, mountaineer, and public intellectual.

The Ascent of John TyndallThe Victorian physicist John Tyndall is one of those figures who tend to appear on the periphery of other people’s biographies. He socialised and worked with many famous individuals, and was himself famous and influential in his day. But his fame rapidly diminished after his tragic death.

Roland Jackson suggests, at the conclusion of this excellent biography, that Tyndall’s relative obscurity these days can be attributed to three factors: (1) his wife’s failure to produce a planned biography meant no biography appeared until 1945 (over 50 years after Tyndall’s death); (2) Tyndall was a great experimentalist, rather than theoretician, and it is the theoreticians who tend to be remembered in physics; (3) Tyndall was one of the last of the great classical physicists, missing out on the revolutionary discoveries that took place in his chosen field within a few years of his death. By the time the first biography appeared, Tyndall’s physics was, in some respects, out of fashion.

Tyndall’s reputation is due a renaissance. As the person who explained the physics behind what is now known as the Greenhouse Effect, he deserves to be better known at a time when human-induced climate change is finally being recognised as one of the most pressing concerns of our age (at least by those who don’t have a vested interest in denying it).

In addition to the Greenhouse Effect, Tyndall is perhaps best known for explaining why the sky is blue. Indeed, he receives honourable mention regarding both these subjects in my book On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk. But, I must confess, my knowledge of Tyndall’s science pretty much ended with these two subjects until I read this extensive biography. True, I did know he was a member of the X-Club: a dining society of scientific friends, who campaigned on behalf of naturalistic science (and, therefore, against the encroachment of theology into scientific matters). I also knew that he was a friend of Charles Darwin, climbed the Matterhorn, and was accidentally killed by his wife (see my book for more details). But I had no idea Tyndall had explained how atmospheric conditions can affect the transmission of sound (another topic touched on in my book). Nor did I know he was a forceful proponent of atomic theory, ether theory, and the germ theory of disease. Nor that his investigations into germ theory and other topics led to his invention of a new sterilisation process, the firefighting respirator, and to an improved design for foghorns. While these topics might sound eclectic, Jackson shows how they all stemmed from related studies into sound and light transmissions through gases.

For a change, my hero Charles Darwin is very much a peripheral figure himself in this biography. Other scientists, rightly, feature more prominently. The cast of characters is daunting: I would have appreciated a brief dramatis personae at the front of the book to remind me occasionally who some of them were. Notable figures include Robert Bunsen, Heinrich Gustav Magnus, Michael Faraday, Charles Wheatstone, Charles Babbage, Rudolf Clausius, James Joule, John Herschel, William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin), Thomas Henry Huxley, Joseph Dalton Hooker, John Lubbock, George Busk, Herbert Spencer, Richard Owen, James Dewar, and Louis Pasteur. But Tyndall’s extensive social and professional circle didn’t stop at scientists. As well as a generous smattering of the nobility, his friends also included Alfred Lord Tennyson and Thomas Carlyle. Last but by no means least, I have to declare a special interest in Tyndall’s closest friend, the mathematician Thomas Archer Hirst, who, Jackson recently suggested to me following an exchange on Twitter, might possibly have been the previous owner of my personal copy of Tyndall’s last book, New Fragments.

From relatively humble beginnings, Tyndall first worked as a surveyor in his native Ireland before moving to England, where he worked for the railway surveyor (and my magnificent namesake) Richard Carter. It was while he was based in Halifax that he became friends with Hirst. Both later went on to study in Marburg, in what is now Germany. An invitation for Tyndall to give a talk at the Royal Institution, which was deemed a great success, led to further invitations and a job offer from Faraday. Tyndall was to spend the rest of his career at the Royal Institution, where he eventually succeeded Faraday. Like his predecessor, he was greatly admired for the quality of his public lectures, which often involved live demonstrations.

It was ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’, Thomas Henry Huxley, who first seems to have interested Tyndall in the study of glaciers. Tyndall’s subsequent trip to the Alps led to a life-long love of mountaineering. It was a golden age for the sport, which Tyndall still occasionally treated as a scientific pursuit. Some of his mountaineering exploits sound reckless to modern ears. I was amused at his thinking a bottle of champagne was suitable refreshment when attempting a new alpine peak. That said, Tyndall was the first person to climb the Weisshorn, and, after a number of earlier attempts on the summit, the first to traverse the Matterhorn (which had been conquered only three years earlier, not so much with a bang as by a Whymper).

The Tyndall that emerges from this biography is a fascinating and likeable character. He doesn’t seem to have had much of a sense of humour, but he comes across as a loyal friend, outspoken champion of science, forceful critic, and a man with a strong appreciation for the charms of the female sex (albeit, not for their intellectual abilities). Jackson seems to find his subject likeable too, although he is not above criticising Tyndall for his sexism, and occasional disingenuities and inconsistencies.

Jackson is one of the editors on the ongoing John Tyndall Correspondence Project. As well as in his copious correspondence, Tyndall’s life is well documented through journals, scientific papers, newspapers, periodicals, and books. The amount of documentation available means Jackson has been able to stick to the facts, without the need for too much conjecture (the bane of many biographies). He has also adopted a mainly chronological approach when telling the story of Tyndall’s life. This always strikes me as the best approach in biographies, although it does make the accounts of Tyndall’s yearly lecturing and mountaineering cycles occasionally repetitive.

The Ascent of John Tyndall is a long-overdue, magnificent tribute to an important, but largely under-appreciated scientist.

Highly recommended.

Disclosures:

  • I received a free, advanced review copy of this book from the publisher;
  • as explained in the above review, I have previously had brief contact with Roland Jackson via Twitter and email concerning my copy of Tyndall’s last book.
Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteFacebookTwitterNewsletterBooks
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