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John Tyndall and John Ruskin

12 Sep 2018

 

John Tyndall (c. 1822-1893) and John Ruskin (1819-1900), of similar ages, were both good friends and admirers of the older Thomas Carlyle, but they did not get on with each other. Ruskin, artist and environmental visionary, did not appreciate that Tyndall’s rational science was allied to a creative and, in some senses, ‘spiritual’ temperament. Tyndall, physicist and scientific naturalist, could not appreciate that Ruskin’s exploration of nature held penetrating insights, even if they were not submitted to scientific review and published in the reputable scientific journals.

 

What brings them together in fascinating juxtaposition (much more than their acrimonious spat in 1873 over theories of glacial motion) is climate change and environmental pollution.

 

According to Albritton and Johnsson, in their book Green Victorians: The Simple Life in John Ruskin’s Lake District, Ruskin ‘became the first great intellectual figure to broach the idea that coal burning gave rise to anthropogenic climate change’. Ruskin was a vocal and visible critic of the effects of mass consumption and burgeoning industrial production, seeing in it both a degradation of the environment and of human morality and spirituality. His views were starkly stated in his 1884 lecture on the Storm Cloud, a vision of world-wide pollution. By the mid-1880s at least, towards the end of the lives of both Tyndall and Ruskin, the potential for coal-burning to cause climate change in principle was recognised, based indeed on Tyndall’s own experimental measurements of the absorption of heat by carbon dioxide. Tyndall, though, was more concerned that without extensive supplies of coal, Britain would be unable to compete in the future with the US and its huge resources, and would suffer economic decline. He could not imagine that substitutes could be found, for example from winds or tides, sufficient to make up the difference.

 

Though Tyndall recognised, in his seminal paper of 1861, that variations in the amounts of substances such as water vapour and carbon dioxide could have climatic effects, and ‘may in fact have produced all the mutations of climate which the researches of geologists reveal’, it was not an aspect he ever followed up. He made no quantitative calculations of the heating effect due to carbon dioxide (that had to wait until Svante Arrhenius in 1896, after Tyndall’s death), and it was not until Guy Callendar’s work in 1938 that the clear quantitative connection was made between global warming and emission of the gas through human activity. Tyndall was interested in the physics, and saw the wider issues as primarily economic. Ruskin had a broader environmental vision, but was unable to work with the scientific community to explore and strengthen his case.

 

It does not appear that Tyndall and Ruskin met very often, despite their mutual hero-worship of Carlyle. Their temperaments, and their outlooks, were too opposed to make for constructive exchanges. Had it been otherwise, the history of environmental and climate science might be different.

 

 

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