Social mobility is not a term commonly associated with Victorian society. The life of physicist and mountaineer John Tyndall stands as an extraordinary exception. The son of a local police constable in rural Ireland, Tyndall rose to become a distinguished man of science and mountaineering, who kept company with eminences like Lord Tennyson, Thomas Carlyle and Louis Pasteur. Roland Jackson brings a unique set of credentials to his chronicle of Tyndall’s life. The author is himself an accomplished mountaineer, who has served as Head of London’s Science Museum.
By his 40th year, Tyndall had delivered a lecture to the Royal Society that set the foundation for our understanding of the greenhouse effect and climate change. He had also made the first ascent of Switzerland’s Weisshorn.
Though regarded primarily as an eminent physicist of mid-Victorian Britain, Tyndall was a man of many contrasts: a hybrid, as the author states, of the inductive and empirical world view of the British, with the Romanticism and idealism of the Germans. His life was woven together by many strands, from scientific discovery and public lectures at home and in the US, to poetry and the development of mountaineering.
Tyndall suffered an ignominious death when his wife Louisa accidentally administered an overdose of chloral hydrate, which he was taking to treat his insomnia. Sadly, the memory of Tyndall’s achievements faded soon after his demise. Unlike in the case of Charles Darwin, for instance, no posthumous documents were to emerge telling of his remarkable life and discoveries. Jackson also notes that Tyndall was essentially an experimentalist, while those who make the big theoretical advances tend to be most remembered.
The third reason is that he had the misfortune to die on the cusp of revolutionary discoveries in physics, like X-rays and quantum theory. It was not until 1945, more than half a century after his death, that a semi-authorised biography of Tyndall was published. Now Jackson has authoritatively redressed this injustice.
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