Thursday, May 19, 2011

John Tyndall - Science Communicator

Queen Elizabeth II will visit the Tyndall National Institute at University College Cork on Friday, but who was John Tyndall?

The National Institute or 'The Tyndall' as it is generally known was formed in 2004 and brought together several academic departments at UCC, along with the former National Microelectronics Research Centre (NMRC) and researchers at Cork Institute of Technology. The objective was, and is, to act as a focal point for Information and Communications Technology in Ireland and to support industry and academia nationally.

John Tyndall (1820-1893) is one of Ireland's most successful scientists and educators. A draftsman, surveyor, physics professor, mathematician, geologist, atmospheric scientist, public lecturer and mountaineer; his great strength was his ability to communicate science to any audience.

Tyndall was born is Leighlinbridge, County Carlow, the son of a police constable. After a local schooling, he became a draftsman with the equivalent of the modern Ordnance Survey and moved to work in England in 1842.

"The desire to grow intellectually did not forsake me" said Tyndall. "and, when railway work slackened, I accepted in 1847 a post as master in Queenwood College." At the Hampshire boarding school, he became good friends with Edward Frankland and the pair headed to Germany to advance their scientific education.

Tyndall extension under construction 2008
In Germany, the Irishman studied under Robert Bunsen for two years. He returned to England in 1851 and started the bulk of his experimental work. In 1853, after a number of unsuccessful job applications, he became Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution in London. Tyndall eventually succeeded Michael Faraday as Superintendent of the Royal Institution in 1867.

He had a variety of scientific interests including solving why the sky is blue: the scattering of light by small particles suspended in the atmosphere. He made the first studies of atmospheric pollution in London and developed the first double beam spectrophotometer.

He demonstrated how light could be sent through a tube of water via multiple internal reflections. He referred to this as the light-pipe and it was a forerunner of the optical fibre used in modern communications technology.

Tyndall was interested in Pasteur's work on sterilisation and developed a process (now known as Tyndallization) which was more effective than Pasteurisation. The process involved heating a substance to 100 degrees C for 15 minutes for three days in a row. The process gets rid of the bacterial spores which are not destroyed by other methods.

Tyndall delivering a public lecture at the Royal Institution
Despite all his scientific breakthroughs, perhaps Tyndall's great legacy is his work as a science communicator. He wrote science columns in many periodicals and gave hundreds of public lectures on a variety of topics. He toured America in 1872 giving public lectures on the subject of light. The substantial proceeds from this lecture tour, he donated to an organisation for promoting science in the US. He published 17 books in his lifetime.

In 1878, it was written of Tyndall: "Professor Tyndall has succeeded not only in original investigation and in teaching science soundly and accurately, but in making it attractive.... When he lectures at the Royal Institution the theatre is crowded".

Tyndall described the vocation of teaching, saying: "I do not know a higher, nobler, and more blessed calling".  He finished one of his books with these inspiring lines:

"Here, my friend, our labours close. It has been a true pleasure to me to have you at my side so long. In the sweat of our brows we have often reached the heights where our work lay, but you have been steadfast and industrious throughout, using in all possible cases your own muscles instead of relying upon mine. Here and there I have stretched an arm and helped you to a ledge, but the work of climbing has been almost exclusively your own. It is thus that I should like to teach you all things; showing you the way to profitable exertion, but leaving the exertion to you.... Our task seems plain enough, but you and I know how often we have had to wrangle resolutely with the facts to bring out their meaning. The work, however, is now done, and you are master of a fragment of that sure and certain knowledge which is founded on the faithful study of nature.... Here then we part. And should we not meet again, the memory of these days will still unite us. Give me your hand. Good bye."

Tyndall had married at the age of 55 and did not have any children with his wife Louisa Hamilton. In his later years, he would often take chloral hydrate to treat insomnia. He died on 4th December 1893 due to an accidental overdose of the drug. He is buried in Haslemere, some 45 miles southwest of London.


Anonymous May 20, 2011 at 1:31 AM  

Interesting post.
It's worth mentioning that Yyndall made a discovery that is extremely relevant to today's science; he was the first to demonstrate that certain gases absorb radiation at long wavelengths, thus providing the first experimental confirmation of Fourier's greenhouse effect.

TyndallMC June 2, 2011 at 10:40 PM  

As well as being one of Ireland's greatest scientists he was Ireland's first great mountaineer. Interesting to see how mountaineering influenced his scicence!

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