‘We live in the sky, not under it’.
This beautiful phrase, revealing a person who experienced as well as understood the physical world, is one of many conjured up by John Tyndall (c. 1822–93), somewhat forgotten scientist and mountaineer of the nineteenth century.
But why write a biography of this man? More to the point, why might you want to read it?
The Aletschorn from the Ebnefluh glacier (Roland Jackson)
Outside the community of academic historians of the period, and some climate scientists, Tyndall is little known. Yet he is one of the fascinating and intriguing figures of the Victorian age. This outspoken Irish-born physicist and mountaineer, who rose from a humble background to move in the highest reaches of Victorian science and society, and marry into the aristocracy, is central to the development of science and its place in cultural discourse. He was one of the most visible public intellectuals of his time, bridging the scientific and literary worlds.
Tyndall is best known in scientific circles for his research on the absorption of heat by gases in the atmosphere. Through this work, he set the foundation for our understanding of climate change, weather, and meteorology. But among much else, he explained why the sky is blue, how glaciers move, and helped establish the germ theory of disease. Beyond that, he was a pivotal figure in placing science on the cultural and educational map in mid-century, and in negotiating its ever problematic relationship to religion and theology. His iconoclastic speeches and writings sent shockwaves through society, not least in religious circles. With friends such as Michael Faraday, Thomas Huxley, Charles Darwin, Rudolf Clausius, Hermann Helmholtz, Emil du Bois-Reymond, Thomas Carlyle, and Alfred Tennyson, he was at the heart of nineteenth century thought.
While the likes of Faraday, Huxley, Darwin, and Tennyson have their multiple general biographies, there has only been one of Tyndall, published in 1945, more than 50 years after his death. It is an anodyne account. This remarkable man, complex, often infuriating, and reflecting all the prejudices, tensions, and opportunities of his age, deserves better.
I hope you may enjoy reading my account of his life and impact. It will appear through OUP in March.