Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/November 1872/Sketch of Professor Tyndall

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THE Tyndall or Tyndale family emerged into history about the same time as the American Continent. The first of whom we hear was William Tyndale, a contemporary of Columbus, and who was just of age when this country was discovered. It was the epoch of intellectual awakening in Europe, and the impulse was felt equally in geographical exploration and in religious reform. Tyndale took to the latter, and translated the Bible into English for the people. But he found worse navigation on the theological sea than Columbus encountered on the Atlantic, and was burned at the stake for his opinions in 1536.

About the middle of the seventeenth century some of the offshoots of the martyr's family emigrated from Gloucestershire, England, to Ireland, on the eastern or Saxon fringe of which some of their descendants are still scattered. Among these was John Tyndall, the Professor's father, who, although unknown to the public, was a man of unusual intellectual power and force of character. The Tyndall blood seems to have been rather fiery, as Prof. Tyndall's father had a "difference" with his grandfather, which cost him the inheritance that he would have otherwise received as the eldest son. He was therefore left to struggle without means, and learned a trade, but subsequently took a position on the police force of Ireland. But, being denied the usual facilities of education, he taught himself upon various subjects, and especially he became an able student of history. Prof. Tyndall's father inherited from his ancestors a taste for religious controversy, and threw himself zealously as an anti-Romanist into the Protestant and Catholic warfare. The fathers of the English Church, Chillingworth, Tillotson, Faber, Poole, Jeremy Taylor, and a host of others, were at his finger's ends. Young Tyndall's early intellectual discipline consisted almost wholly of exercises in theological controversy, on the doctrines of infallibility, purgatory, transubstantiation, and invocation of the saints. The boy knew the Bible almost by heart, and, with reference to this knowledge, his father used to call him Stillingfleet. But he had also an early interest in natural things, and his father flattered this tendency by calling him Newton, and by teaching him lines concerning the great natural philosopher, before he was seven years old, that are still remembered. The father of Prof. Tyndall was not only intellectually gifted, but he was a man of courage, independence, mental delicacy, and scrupulous honor. By the silent influence of his character, by example as well as by precept, he inspired the intellect of his boy, and taught him to love a life of manly independence. He died in May, 1847, quoting to his son the words of Wolsey to Cromwell—"Be just and fear nothing."

The subject of our present sketch was born in the village of Leighlin Bridge, Ireland, in 1820, and his earliest education was received at a school in that neighborhood. Through the influence of one of his teachers, he acquired an early taste for geometry. In 1839 he quitted school and joined the Irish Ordnance Survey. He acquired a practical knowledge of every branch of it, becoming in turn a draughtsman, a computer, a surveyor, and trigonometrical observer. In subsequent years he turned this experience to admirable account in his investigations of alpine glaciers. In 1841 an incident occurred which, although apparently trivial, had a powerful effect upon the young man's career. One of the officials, who had become interested in Tyndall's work, asked him one day how his leisure hours were employed. The answer not being satisfactory, he rejoined, "You have five hours a day at your disposal, and this time ought to be devoted to systematic study. Had I, when at your age, had a friend to advise me, as I now advise you, instead of being in a subordinate position, I might have been at the head of the Survey." Next morning Tyndall was at his books before five o'clock, and for twelve years never swerved from the pratice.

In 1844, seeing no definite prospect before him, Mr. Tyndall resolved to go to America, whither, in the early part of the present century, some members of his father's family had emigrated, and who now reside in Philadelphia[1]. This was, however, opposed by his friends, and, an opening occurring, he entered upon the vocation of a railroad engineer. To five years upon the Ordnance Survey succeeded three years of railway experience. But, this proving unpromising, and animated by a strong desire to augment his knowledge, Mr. Tyndall resigned his position, and accepted an appointment in Queenswood College, Hampshire—a new institution devoted partly to a junior school and partly to the preliminary technical education of agriculturists and engineers. Prof. Tyndall here developed a remarkable capacity as a teacher. Although totally inexperienced in this field, such was his magnetic influence over the students, that he was invariably called upon to compose their disturbances, which he did by moral influences and pure force of character. It was his experience in this institution that gave him the groundwork of his masterly address on education before the Royal Institution.[2]

In 1848, in company with his friend Frankland (now Prof. Frankland, of the Royal School of Chemistry), Tyndall quitted England, and, attracted by the fame of Prof. Bunsen, repaired to the University of Marburg, in Hesse-Cassel. Prof. Tyndall had the free use of the laboratory and cabinets of this institution, with the instructions of Bunsen, Gerling, Knoblauch, and Stegman. His first scientific paper was a mathematical essay on screw-surfaces, which formed the subject of his inaugural dissertation when he took his degree. But the investigation which first made him known to the scientific world was "On the Magne-optic Properties of Crystals, and the Relation of Magnetism and Diamagnetism to Molecular Arrangement." This investigation was executed in connection with Prof. Knoblauch, and was published in the Philosophical Magazine for 1850.

In 1851 Mr. Tyndall went to Berlin, and continued his researches in the laboratory of Prof. Magnus. He soon, however, returned to London, and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1852. He was invited to give a Friday evening discourse at the Royal Institution, which he delivered February 14, 1853, and was so successful that he was at once offered a position in that establishment. His election to the appointment which he now holds, of Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution, was unanimously made in June, 1853. The first three years of his residence in London he devoted to an exhaustive investigation of diamagnetism, the results of which were published in various memoirs that have since been collected in a volume.

Prof. Tyndall was first attracted to the Alps in 1849, for the sole object of healthful recreation and exercise. But he could not be long in the presence of the grand physical phenomena there displayed without becoming interested in the scientific questions they present. Accordingly, for more than twenty years, the Alps have served the double purpose to Prof. Tyndall of physical and mental reinvigoration, after being run down by his London work; and, at the same time, they have furnished him with a series of the most interesting scientific problems. In company with his friends Prof. Huxley and Prof. Hirst (an old and favorite pupil of Tyndall's, and to whom he dedicated his "Hours of Exercise in the Alps"), and often alone, usually in summer, but sometimes in winter, he has climbed the mountains and explored the Glaciers, to clear up the various questions that have arisen, and extend our knowledge of the subject. The description of his adventures and the results of his researches were embodied in his volume on "The Glaciers of the Alps," but which is now out of print. The reader will, however, find the records of adventure, and the results of study in the mountains, embodied in the "Hours of Exercise," published last year, and in a neat little volume on the "Forms of Water," now just issued from the press.

As we remarked last month, Prof. Tyndall's proclivity is for philosophic physics, and all his various lines of research, since he began in the Marburg laboratory, twenty-four years ago, have converged upon the great question of the molecular constitution of matter. The different forces of Nature, and the several divisions of physics, can only be brought into scientific harmony as they are harmonized in Nature, by arriving at some clear understanding of the common constitution of matter and how it is related to the action of forces. Prof. Tyndall has been a profound student of the correlation of these forces, and of the mechanism of that material substratum through which they are manifested. Taking up matter in its free or vaporous condition, his chief problem has been to explore or to sound it by the action of the radiant forces. In his work on "Heat as a Mode of Motion," published in 1863, he develops that modern view of the nature of heat which involves a molecular conception of the bodies displaying it. The results of his original researches into the relations of radiant heat to gases and vapors are there summarized, and his full memoirs upon these investigations have just been published in a companion volume to the work on diamagnetism. His interesting little volume on "Sound," although not designed as a statement of original work, takes up the subject of acoustics from the same general point of view, and deals with atmospheric wave-motion in connection with the properties and constitution of the various forms of matter. The researches on the formation of clouds in tubes filled with various gases and vapors under the influence of the electric beam, and the resulting inquiry into the subject of atmospheric dust, were but parts of the same comprehensive investigation into molecular conditions and transformations.

Prof. Tyndall has won his scientific reputation as an explorer in the field of experimental physics, but he has also a commanding position as a philosophic thinker. The questions that can be resolved by experiment lead on to questions that can be resolved only by reason. Philosophy is old and easy, and the human mind has overflowed with it from the beginning; but philosophy grounded in the knowledge and method of science is as yet rare, though it is nevertheless a glorious reality. If scientific thinking is the result of an apprenticeship of centuries in the management of the intellect, and if the mind's scientific action is its most perfect action, then must scientific men, as the world goes on, be more and more trusted in their opinions. Such is undoubtedly the present tendency. This is shown generally in the increasing recognition of the scientific school of philosophy, and it is specially exemplified, in the present case, by the interest that is taken in whatever Prof. Tyndall has to say to the public, and whatever the subject on which he speaks. This high scientific position gives acknowledged weight and force to his views. But Prof. Tyndall's philosophic cast of mind not only attracts him to the deeper questions of the time, but his courageous temper leads him to deal with them candidly and fearlessly. First of all, a devotee of science and a lover of truth, he gives to these his sole allegiance. An independent and intrepid inquirer, tolerant of honest error, but contemptuous of that timid and calculating spirit which would protect men's prejudices from the light of investigation, he is without fear in the free and manly expressions of his opinions. That these should often contravene prevailing beliefs is inevitable. A Protestant by hereditary instinct and in his blood, and long drilled in the severities of scientific logic, it is impossible that he should not find much in current opinion to excite continued and trenchant protest.

Allied with this cherished freedom of thought and utterance, there is in Prof. Tyndall's character an intense love of justice, and a passion for fair dealing that is quite chivalric. This temper has been displayed on various occasions, but in none more conspicuously than in his generous defence of the German physicist, Mayer, whose scientific claims he considered to be depreciated by English scientists. Mayer's had been a hard fate. An undoubted pioneer in establishing the important doctrine of the correlation of forces, working out its several lines of proof with marvellous sagacity and an amount of exhausting labor that resulted in mental derangement, and with little sympathetic recognition on the part of his own countrymen, Prof. Tyndall was indignant that Englishmen, who pride themselves upon fair play, should detract one iota from the just fame of the unfortunate foreigner. The man was unknown to him, but the rights of the discoverer and the honor of science were involved, and against the attacks of Professors Thomson, Tait, and others, Prof. Tyndall made a defence so effectual that the claims of the German philosopher will hardly be brought in question again.

Of Prof. Tyndall as an author, it is hardly necessary to speak, as his various works have been widely circulated, and the reading public is familiar with them. Yet his genius as a writer is so marked that it cannot be omitted even in the briefest sketch of his character. Among scientific writers he stands almost alone in the poetic vividness, force, and finish of his style. His descriptions and narrations are enriched by a bold and striking pictorial imagery, which presents the subject with almost the perspective and "coloring of reality." No man better understands the high office of imagination in science, or can more effectively employ it to fascinate and illuminate the minds of others. Of an ardent and poetic temperament, and at home among the grandeurs of natural phenomena, there is often an inspiration in his words that rouses and thrills our highest feelings.

Prof. Tyndall is now among us, to speak upon science in several of the chief cities of the country, and it is therefore as a lecturer that the public will be chiefly interested in him. We quote an excellent account of his characteristics as a public teacher from the October Galaxy:

"Prof. Tyndall's manner as a lecturer is in a remarkable degree individual and unique. He never reads, but holds his audience by the power of lucid and forcible extemporaneous statement. He is not what would be called a fluent or even speaker, who keeps up a continuous strain of agreeable utterance. He is not an elegant declaimer, whose measured cadences are accompanied by graceful and appropriate gestures. He is irregular and sometimes hesitating in speech, and unstudied in gestures and movements. His habit of speaking has been formed in connection with bis habit of experimenting, and this latter is so essential a feature of his platform exercises that it greatly influences his manner of public address. Clearness, force, vividness of description, felicity of illustration, and the eloquence inspired by grand conceptions are the striking features of his style. Of a poetic and imaginative temperament, but with these traits under thorough discipline, he gives vivacity and attractiveness to accurate and solid exposition. Prof. Tyndall is a thoroughly-trained and well-poised enthusiast in science. He is intensely in earnest, and is always as much interested in the subject and the proceedings as the audience he carries with him. He is a remarkable example of self-forgetfulness upon the platform, being always absorbed in his subject. Strongly sympathetic with his audience, he seems animated by but one purpose: to make them understand the question before them, to make them see it and feel it as he sees and feels it. As an original and skilful experimenter Prof. Tyndall is unrivalled. Fertile and ingenious in contrivances for bringing out his points, the effects are always telling and

impressive. Yet the experiments are never the main things; they are always subordinate to the idea with which he is dealing—helps to its presentation. He is never eclipsed by his own pyrotechny, but holds the attention of his listeners closely to the question under examination. Prof. Tyndall is remarkable for the combination of two traits which are but rarely united in a single individual. He is an original explorer of scientific truth, and a skilful and effective public teacher. Holding the truths of science to be divine, he is impelled to dedicate his life to their discovery; but holding them also to be a means of salvation to man, he is impelled also to the duty of their public interpretation. The Royal Institution, in which he is professor, is admirably constituted for the attainment of this twofold end; providing equally for carrying out systematic original researches and for expounding their results to the select audiences that gather in its lecture-room. Sir Humphry Davy first gave it a world-wide reputation in both these departments; he was a fertile discoverer and an eloquent lecturer. Dr. Faraday succeeded him, and probably surpassed him in both of these accomplishments. The mantle of Faraday has fallen upon Tyndall, and the fame of the establishment has not suffered from the change."

Prof. Tyndall has long desired to visit the United States, to see his many friends, and to observe the aspects of American life; while multitudes in this country have reciprocated the desire, that they might have the opportunity of listening to his lectures. Yielding to their numerous appeals, he has prepared a course of six lectures, and brought with him a large amount of new and delicate apparatus, for illustrating them. The lectures will embrace the phenomena and laws of light: reflection, refraction, analysis, synthesis, the doctrine of colors, and the extension of radiant action in both directions, beyond the light-giving rays into the region of invisible action. Then will follow the principles of spectrum analysis, the polarization of light, the phenomena of crystallization, the action of crystals upon light, the chromatic phenomena of polarized light, and the parallel phenomena of light and radiant heat. These lectures will be a source of rare intellectual enjoyment to those who will have the good fortune to listen to them, and of which our citizens will not be slow to avail themselves.

We give, in the present number of the Monthly, the best likeness we have ever seen of Prof. Tyndall. He is a man of medium stature, lithe-built, highly vitalized, alert and noiseless in his movements; a ready and effective talker, but an excellent listener, and his manners are genial and attractive. He is socially strong, a man of the world, as well as a philosopher, and at home in all relations. But, with all his passion for experiment, he has not yet made the experiment of matrimony.

  1. One of these is Hector Tyndale, who distinguished himself as an officer in the late war. At Antietam he fought as major, and for his gallant behavior was subsequently made brigadier-general.
  2. See "Culture demanded by Modern Life." D. Appleton & Co.