Constructing a biography
Updated: Dec 22, 2019
There are many ways to write a biography, so how should one choose an approach?
I first encountered John Tyndall in my early 20s, when I had started rock-climbing and mountaineering. In Michael Moon’s bookshop in Whitehaven I came across the Everyman edition of Tyndall’s Glaciers of the Alps and Mountaineering in 1861, costing £4. Written in a somewhat florid yet engaging style, it brought the period, and the glaciers and mountains of the Alps, to life for me.
But that was all I read of Tyndall for many years. I knew little of his scientific achievements (such as his work that laid the basis for our understanding of the greenhouse effect, meteorology, and climate change) and nothing of his uncompromising statements on the relationship between science and religion. It was not until I became Chief Executive of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (now the British Science Association) in 2002 that I properly registered him again. Tyndall had famously, indeed notoriously, been President of the British Association in 1874. At the Annual Meeting in Belfast his Presidential Address had outraged both Catholic and Presbyterian feeling, as he sought to stake out the territory over which he claimed science, rather than religion, should hold sway.
I bought a copy of the now scarce biography of Tyndall, published in 1945, but found it insipid. It neither explained the development of his scientific and religious ideas, nor gave any deep insights into his character. Yet here was a major figure, lacking the visibility of his contemporary friends like Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, and Alfred Tennyson. Perhaps I should write his biography myself, and for a general audience?
It has taken at least seven years since that decision to complete the work.
There is a considerable academic literature on Tyndall, but I quickly realised that real insight would come particularly from his personal journals and letters, and from those of his friends and enemies. I determined to write a ‘bottom-up’ biography, using his own words and those of his contemporaries, to give a more direct feel for his personality and the age in which he lived. Much of Tyndall’s personal archive—the majority of some 8000 letters and all his extant journals—is deposited at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in Mayfair, central London. At the invitation of Frank James, Professor of the History of Science, I was offered a Visiting Fellowship. Combined with a Research Associateship at the Department of Science and Technology Studies at UCL, courtesy of Professor Joe Cain, I have had superb access to knowledgeable people, archives, and academic resources.
I soon discovered the existence of the Tyndall Correspondence Project, a huge international collaboration to publish all Tyndall’s extant correspondence, with scholarly notes, in 19 volumes. (The original estimate was 16 volumes, and the increase is in some measure due to the number of letters I have found since starting my research). Initially I helped the team of volunteers to transcribe, and in some cases translate, letters to and from Tyndall. Now I am one of the four general editors, with Professor Bernard Lightman, Professor Michael Reidy, and Dr James Elwick. At the time of writing, volume 3 is just published, and others will appear at roughly six month intervals.
I have always found it annoying when biographers attempt extensive psychological analysis, or overindulge in speculation. I do make comments on aspects of Tyndall's character, as it appears to me, and on his actions, in the context of the social mores of the time. But for the most part I have sought to select and lay out the evidence to enable the reader to enter into her or his relationship with Tyndall, and establish an individual view. Readers will, I am sure, see things that I have not, or interpret events in different ways from me.
I have chosen to tell the story of a life unfolding, bringing insights from the academic literature, yet letting Tyndall’s life’s trajectory speak for itself. What emerges is the contingency of personal development and of a career. The ways chosen or not chosen, the people met, the seemingly random encounters or remarks that launch a new direction. Just to take the science alone (and there is much more to Tyndall than that), such an approach helps reveal the logic of Tyndall’s scientific path. That is with hindsight; it could not have been predicted in advance. Tyndall ranged like no-one else across so many areas of science—magnetism, glaciology, geology, heat, light, sound, germ theory and more—yet all that work is connected by the way that Tyndall imagined the nature of the physical world.
The biography, published on 22 March 2018, follows the threads through all these domains, and the interaction of his work with his private and public lives.