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'The Ascent of John Tyndall' Review: Science at the Summit

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In the 19th century, science and technology rose to the center of public awareness. Among the luminaries of Victorian science was

John Tyndall,

whose remarkable careers as a scientist, mountaineer and outspoken public advocate brought him to the pinnacle of British society and gained him world-wide renown. Tyndall (1820-93) has long awaited a comprehensive biography, one now offered by

Roland Jackson,

a historian of science and former head of the Science Museum in London. In “The Ascent of John Tyndall,” Mr. Jackson amasses a wealth of detail to give a fuller picture of this extraordinary man.

Tyndall led the first expedition to climb the Weisshorn, a peak in the Swiss Alps.


Photo:

Eye Ubiquitous/UIG via Getty Images

The Ascent of John Tyndall

By Roland Jackson
Oxford, 556 pages, $34.95

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Tyndall’s life began humbly, in a respectable but impecunious Irish family whose Protestant roots shaped his lifelong opposition to home rule. Starting out as an itinerant surveyor without a college degree, he became one of the first Britons to earn a doctorate in science at a German university. In Germany, he came to know eminent scientists like the chemist

Robert Bunsen

and the pioneer of thermodynamics

Rudolf Clausius,

becoming an ideal conduit between Continental and British scientists. Tyndall’s skill as an experimenter and gifts as a lecturer were recognized by

Michael Faraday,

who himself had gone from being a bookbinder’s apprentice to making epochal discoveries in physics and who gave spellbinding public lectures at the Royal Institution. When Faraday chose Tyndall to be his “brother,” Tyndall replied: “Let me be your son.”

Appointed professor at the Royal Institution in 1853, Tyndall proved to be no less charismatic and influential than his mentor, though he never made fundamental discoveries to equal those of Faraday, who provided the concept of “field”—as in magnetic or electrical fields—so fundamental to physics. Notably, Tyndall studied how light and heat interact with gases, helping explain, for example, why the sky is blue. Yet Tyndall looms largest today because in 1861 he demonstrated the role of carbon dioxide and water vapor in heating the atmosphere, a discovery that had already been made in 1856 by an American woman,

Eunice Foote

(of whom Tyndall was probably unaware). To understand the origins of our present climatic predicament, we look back to Foote and Tyndall, though it was not until 1938 that Guy Callendar quantified the role of human agency in climate change. Sadly, we are still struggling to respond adequately to this fateful truth.

Tyndall’s achievements went far beyond the laboratory. He was one of the premier alpinists in the golden age of climbing before the advent of the technical innovations that later mountaineers adopted. His most notable climbs included the first solo ascent of Monte Rosa (the highest peak in Switzerland), the first ascent of the Weisshorn (“the noblest mountain in the Alps,” in his words), and the first traverse of the Matterhorn, which he completed from the Italian to the Swiss side. Mr. Jackson, who has climbed the Matterhorn himself, vividly recounts these feats. Few people (and fewer scientists) have equaled such accomplishments, requiring so much energy, courage and sheer grit. What is more, Tyndall used his Alpine experiences to argue for a new view of the nature of glaciers. Scientists had been debating whether glaciers were viscous—whether they poured downhill like a liquid or slid like a solid. Tyndall’s spotting of a section of glacier “smoothed and fluted” by its passage over the ground, Mr. Jackson writes, bolstered his view that glaciers were rigid.

Tyndall very much took up Faraday’s mantle as a prominent public advocate of science. He was acclaimed for his “striking experimental displays,” Mr. Jackson writes, which demonstrated physical effects on stage with arrays of flames, lamps, prisms and lenses. His lectures captivated diverse audiences that included workers and women as well as gentlemen. He rubbed elbows with dukes and befriended

Thomas Carlyle,

Ralph Waldo Emerson

and

Alfred Tennyson.

He counseled the government on the design of lighthouses and fog horns. Tyndall also became a controversial defender of advanced scientific positions, like his close friend

Thomas Huxley,

the “bulldog” who championed evolution in a celebrated debate with

Bishop Samuel Wilberforce.

Tyndall worked to strengthen science education when it was minimal even in elite schools.

To many audiences, he drew attention to what he considered the greatest recent achievements of science: the law of conservation of energy, the theory of evolution and the germ theory of disease. Indeed, Tyndall conducted many experiments to test and defend the germ theory, still controversial in the 1870s. Even more controversially, an address Tyndall gave in Belfast in 1874 claimed that science wrested from religion all its claims “on the region of objective knowledge, over which it holds no command,” though leaving religion its capability “of adding in the region of poetry and emotion, inward completeness and dignity to man.” This attack on religion (and on the efficacy of prayer) raised a huge storm.

For completeness, Mr. Jackson seems to have felt duty-bound to include a great deal of information about Tyndall’s social engagements and itinerary, down to the menus of certain meals. Yet on other, more important matters, he is strangely silent. Often he tells us that Tyndall was depressed, unable to sleep or had breakdowns, yet he never offers any explanation. Even if Mr. Jackson did not want to conjecture, it would have been helpful had he said more. Perhaps he could have illuminated “the sadness with which I viewed the Matterhorn,” among many other enigmatic moments: Why should the great mountain make the mountaineer sad? As a result, Tyndall as a person remains elusive.

Then too, Mr. Jackson’s account of Tyndall’s scientific work often lacks sufficient context to illuminate what was at stake. On Tyndall’s controversial theory of magnetism, which was important to his early career, Mr. Jackson notes that history “perhaps unfairly” has not given its verdict for Tyndall, but he never explains. One appreciates the moments in which Mr. Jackson does offer some help, but it would much more useful to know more about the larger context than the names of the peers and grandees with whom Tyndall dined.

In many ways, Roland Jackson has done a great service in his detailed and careful presentation of John Tyndall’s life at a time when science is under attack, neglected and misunderstood, especially by those in government. Their ignorance calls us anew to realize for ourselves what science means and grasp its power.

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