Popular Science Monthly/Volume 25/October 1884/Sketch of Lord Rayleigh

PSM V25 D738 John William Strutt Lord Rayleigh.jpg



WE publish an excellent portrait, this month, of the subject of the present sketch, Professor Lord Rayleigh, President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which held its annual meeting this year at Montreal.

John William Strutt, Baron Rayleigh, of Ferling Place, Essex, was born November 12, 1842. He had a delicate constitution, which it was feared would render the exposures of the public school dangerous, and he was accordingly placed under the charge of the Rev. J. T. Warner, of Torquay. He early developed a fondness for experimental research, and his chief amusement while a youth was photography. In October, 1861, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, and was there classed among the "reading-men" by his fellow-students. He took several prizes and an exhibition in the course of his studies, and graduated with distinguished honors, being both senior wrangler and Smith's prizeman. Following the usual custom, when a student of a college has distinguished himself in the final examinations. Trinity College elected him a Fellow.

In 1871 Mr. Strutt married the second daughter of the late James Balfour, of Whittingham, Scotland, thus losing his fellowship, to which only celibates are eligible. On the 14th of June, 1872, he succeeded to the title, and in the same year was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, to whose transactions he has contributed many important papers. The medal of this society was conferred upon him in 1882 as a recognition of the importance of his scientific work. In 1879, upon the death of Professor Clerk-Maxwell, who had filled the chair since its establishment in 1871, Lord Rayleigh was appointed Professor of Experimental Physics in Cambridge. Since then, he has devoted much of his time to the organization of the magnificent Cavendish Laboratory, the gift of the Duke of Devonshire, chancellor of the university.

Lord Rayleigh was elected President of the British Association last year at its Southport meeting, and succeeds Professor Arthur Cayley, who is so well known for his devotion to pure mathematics, also in the University of Cambridge. The selection of a lord for the presidency of this body is not without abundant precedent, several distinguished noblemen, as Prince Albert, the Dukes of Argyll and Northumberland, Lord Wrottesley, and others, having occupied the position, which has given rise to the insinuation that this body has a weakness for great titles. But, in the first place, the British Association is not a republican club, but a body of men wise and practical in their generation, and who know how to adapt means to ends for the successful accomplishment of the objects they have in view. And, in the next place, the nobleman who presided at Montreal is not merely a lord, but a man of very distinguished ability and eminently entitled to the honor from both the character and extent of his original scientific work. His writings, however, are only or chiefly known to scientific men. Numerous papers from his pen are scattered through the pages of the proceedings of several learned societies of England, though some of them have been collected into a volume and published separately. He has produced but one extensive work, namely, "The Theory of Sound," a mathematical treatise in two volumes. It was begun on the Nile in 1872, and published in 1877-78. The article on "Optics," in the last volume of the "Encyclopaedia Britannica," was also written by him. His determinations of the ohm, which were presented to the Paris Conference of Electricians in 1883-'84, have been accepted as the basis of the unit of electrical resistance. His recent experiments in methods of practically measuring the strength of the electric current point to the method, by the deposition of silver, as one capable of furnishing a high degree of accuracy.

To these scanty particulars of Lord Rayleigh's life and career, for which we are mainly indebted to a brief sketch in the Montreal "Star," we may add the estimate of his work given by Sir William Thomson in introducing him to the large audience at the first assemblage of the Association in Montreal, August 27th, when he assumed the presidential chair. Referring first to the work of his predecessor, Sir William Thomson remarked: "Professor Cayley has devoted his life to the advancement of pure mathematics. It is indeed peculiarly appropriate that he should be followed in the honorable post of president by one who has done so much to apply mathematical power in the various branches of physical science as Lord Rayleigh has done. In the field of the discovery and demonstration of natural phenomena Lord Rayleigh has, above all others, enriched physical science by the application of mathematical analysis; and when I speak of mathematics you must not suppose mathematics to be harsh and crabbed. (Laughter.) The Association learned last year at Southport what a glorious realm of beauty there was in pure mathematics. I will not, however, be hard on those who insist that it is harsh and crabbed. In reading some of the pages of the greatest investigators of mathematics one is apt occasionally to become wearied, and I must confess that some of the pages of Lord Rayleigh's work have taxed me most severely, but the strain was well repaid. When we pass from the instrument which is harsh and crabbed to those who do not give themselves the trouble to learn it thoroughly, to the application of the instrument, see what a splendid world of light, beauty, and music is opened to us through such investigations as those of Lord Rayleigh! His book on sound is the greatest piece of mathematical investigation we know of applied to a branch of physical science. The branches of music are mere developments of mathematical formulas, and of every note and wave in music the equation lies in the pages of Lord Rayleigh's book. (Laughter and applause.) There are some who have no ear for music, but all who are blessed with eyes can admire the beauties of Nature, and among those one which is seen in Canada frequently, in England often, in Scotland rarely, is the blue sky. (Laughter.) Lord Rayleigh's brilliant piece of mathematical work on the dynamics of blue sky is a monument of the application of mathematics to a subject of supreme difficulty, and on the subject of refraction of light he has pointed out the way toward finding all that has to be known, though he has ended his great work by admitting that the explanation of the fundamentals of the reflection and refraction of light is still wanting, and is a subject for the efforts of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. But there is still another subject, electricity and the electric light, and here again Lord Rayleigh's work is fundamental, and one may hope from the suggestions it contains that electricity may yet be put upon the level of ordinary mechanics, and that the electrician may be able to weigh out electric quantities as easily and readily as a merchant could a quantity of tea or sugar."

Lord Rayleigh is a man of modest deportment but a very strong man. It was feared that his inaugural address would be an abstruse performance little calculated to interest a general audience, but the apprehension turned out to be groundless. The discourse was full of compressed thought, but closely interested his hearers, and was a model as a survey of the recent advancement in physical science. It was delivered in a clear and effective style, well measured, but without the least hesitancy of speech. In this respect the man of the laboratory of mathematics and of research contrasted strongly with many of those literary Englishmen whom we might suppose would cultivate somewhat the art of delivery; but in all respects Lord Rayleigh's manner of speaking was in sharp antithesis to the style, for example, of Mr. Matthew Arnold.