A Gas Man: John Tyndall

John Tyndall of Leighlinbridge Co Carlow, pictured above, was the first to explain why the sky is blue and to discover ‘greenhouse gases’ in the Earth’s atmosphere (Credit: Wikipedia)

The first researcher to identify the ‘greenhouse effect’, to explain why the sky is blue, and to develop optically pure air – the foreruner of today’s cleanroom technology, which is used in the manufacture of high-tech electronic devices. These are just some of the many reasons why John Tyndall, from Leighlinbridge Co Carlow was certainly one of the most famous 19th century scientists in Britain and Ireland. A multi-talented man, he was also a brilliant science communicator, whose public lectures at the Royal Society in London were legendary, as were his many popular books on scientific topics. When he died in 1893 he died a rich and hugely successful man, leaving behind £22,000, the equivalent of £6 million today.  Not bad for a man born into a humble Protestant family in rural Ireland.

Tyndall’s ancestors were from Gloucestershire and had arrived in the southeast of Ireland in the 17th century. His background was certainly not a privileged one, and his father worked as a police constable. He attended local schools, where he learned subjects such as technical drawing and maths. He worked in Ireland for as a surveyor the Government doing land surveys and mapping, and moved to England in 1842, now in his early twenties and did the same. He benefitted from the railway building boom in the UK in the 1840s, and made a lot of money working for the railway companies, doing surveying work in that decade.

It seems, however, that although he was always adept at making money, money was not his God and he went into teaching in 1847 at an English boarding school in Hampshire. He moved to Germany a year later, to do a PhD under Robert Bunsen, of bunsen burner fame, at the University of Marburg.  He returned to England in 1851 and joined the Royal Society in London one year later. He would remain at the Royal Society all his working life, and became its Director.

Institute

The large and well-respected Tyndall National Institute in Cork was named in Tyndall’s honour. The reason the Institute named itself after him that is that he did a lot of research in areas that the Tyndall is interested in today such as the behaviour of light. Tyndall did some of the earliest investigations into the ‘guiding’ of light, and this is essentially what underlies optical fibre technology, which forms the basis for modern communications, particularly the Internet. He also did a lot of work on what would today be called ‘clean room’ technology. His work involved studying things that float in the air, and he developed some of the very earliest ‘optically pure’ air. Today, cleanrooms are used as manufacturing sites for producing advanced semi-conductors and opto-electronic devices.

Science communicator

Tyndall was a great believer in demonstrating things to students or the public in order to explain them. He gave lectures to the public on all kinds of topics, and he proved to be a brilliant natural science communicator and these lectures were very popular and attracted large crowds. This work also made him famous, and ultimately made him rich too.  He succeeded the famous Michael Faraday as  the Director of the Royal Institution and he continued the work of public outreach that Faraday had started. Tyndall was a brilliant 19th century ‘polymath’, meaning he was interested in lots of different things. He belived in getting the message over by actually demonstrating things to the general public. He was profilic, publishing many books, 17 in total, and wrote 145 scientific papers.

Personal life

He married late, at the age of 55, to a woman 25 years younger. They had no children. He left just over £22,000 pounds in his estate when he died in 1893. This was an enormous amount considering that a London police constable was paid about £80 per year at the time. If we do the comparative mathematics that means his estate was worth in the region of £6 million in today’s money.

He was someone who suffered considerable ill health. He slept badly, suffered from migranes and took ‘sleeping draughts’ to help him to sleep. These draughts were tonics used in the 19th century that people drank before bed to help them get to sleep. The draughts were administered to Tyndall by his wife, and

they proved to be Tyndall’s undoing as he died from an accidental overdose of chloral hydrate when his wife got some bottles mixed up. The woman was distraught, and no blame was attached to her at the subsequent inquest.

Aside from science, the other great passion in Tyndalls’ life was mountain climbing and each summer form 1856 onwards, he visited the Alps. He was the first to reach the top of the Weisshorn in 1861 and he climbed the Matterhorn in 1868, three years after the first ascent. He had caught the mountain climbing bug when visiting the Alps for scientific reasons. Today he has a glacier in Chile named after him as well as a mountain in California and another in Tasmania.

Legacy

There were a number of things Tyndall did which were ‘firsts’. He was the first to analyse the trace gases in the atmosphere by employing a technique that would later become infrared spectroscopy.  He used the technique to discover that there were traces of carbon dioxide and water vapour in the atmosphere. He concluded, showing brilliant insight, that they way that carbon dioxide and water vapour absorbed infrared radiation meant that they were keeping the Earth warm. He went further, and said without these two elements, life couldn’t exist on Earth.

He was the first scientist to attempt to describe precisely why the sky is blue. The simple version of his explanation is that it was all to do with the scattering of light. This was later replicated by Lord Raleigh, but Tyndall was the first to do it. He had many battles with creationists, who considered that life had arose spontaneously out of nothing. He showed that it was not possible for life to spring to life spontaneously through a simple experiment. He made a box very clean and took all the dirt out of the air, and waited. No life forms spontaneously arose.

Certainly, Tyndall is one of Ireland’s greatest ever scientists, and his influence over many areas, including science communication, remains strong to this day.

First published in the September-October 2011 edition of Science Spin

How Irish Scientists Changed the World, by Seán Duke, is due for publication by Londubh Books in 2012.

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