The Ascent of John Tyndall, published by Oxford University Press


I think about Tyndall every day. I write Tyndall many times every day, say Tyndall many times every day, dream about Tyndall most nights. Because, I work for the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, almost since its founding. Tyndall is deep in my subconscious. John Tyndall is hard-wired into me. That is why I volunteered to review this new book, the Ascent of John Tyndall, launched yesterday by Oxford University Press.

Because Tyndall is so embedded in my soul, I also thought I knew quite a lot about him. I’ve picked up quite a lot of knowledge over the years, had conversations with science archivists, science historians, climate scientists, seen his lab equipment and note books at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London, have looked many times at the portraits of him and his wife, Louisa, hung on the walls of the Royal Society of London.

I have used his Vanity Fair 1876 ‘Men of the Day No.43’ sketch in my own magazines, read the previous biography of 1945. I answer the occasional public enquiry about him. He takes part in most of my talks to general public audiences. Ascent of John Tyndall proves that I don’t know much about him at all. John Tyndall is an even more remarkable than I thought he was.

I groaned when I first saw this 550 page tome, having volunteered to review it. But, this is not a big thick academically dry history-of-science on-the-shoulders-of-giants type book. It reads as the story of the life and times of a man called John Tyndall, what he did, how and in some cases, why. It is an academic work AND a fully-rounded story of a famous Victorian scientist who is well known in science circles but not wider. He stands shoulder-to-shoulder with his close friends and contemporaries Faraday, Huxley, Carlyle, but not recognised quite as much. I get the sense that Roland Jackson, the author, wished to correct this historical oversight of John Tyndall.

Roland Jackson has written the most comprehensive and detailed account of the life of John Tyndall. That 550 pages by the way includes 100 pages of notes references and indexes. Jackson is former Chief Executive of the British Science Association, formerly the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and former head of the Science Museum in London.

My organisation, the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research is in his namesake because John Tyndall did the experiments to show that gases absorbed heat – the greenhouse effect – our magazine is quite rightly called The Tyndall Effect, of course. The US scientist Eunice Foote (1819-1889) did the same experiment three years earlier than Tyndall, though her paper was read out by a man at the 1856 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Foote was the second woman member of the AAAS.

Tyndall also worked out why the sky is blue. He studied glaciers and geology, a consequence of simultaneously being a keen mountain climber with his keen mind, as well as many other topics of physics and chemistry both theoretical and applied.

If John Tyndall was alive today, I would like to think that he would like our modern Tyndall Centre because, like him, we are interdisciplinary. We bring top quality research to the solving of a big societal problem. We join together different types of expertise, such as climate scientists, environmental scientists, social scientists, psychologists, engineers. We also work with artists. We understand, communicate and advocate to policy makers and public the evidence-based need for responding to climate change. In John Tyndall’s Victorian Age I think interdisciplinary might simply been called a rounded education and a keen mind.

The Ascent of John Tyndall reveals to me that climate change as a science theme maybe has had a similar journey to John Tyndall’s career, though perhaps I’m retrofitting. He began with curiosity and this then included advising policy decisions with the best scientific evidence of the time. I like him even more because it seems he had a clear sense of right and wrong and worked to pursue what he thought fair. One example is that he was Science Advisor to Trinity House, the Lighthouse Authority, which he did not want to be an industry stitch-up. He eventually resigned, but still pursued his aims. Perhaps this is partly because he was born in Ireland under British Rule. The BREXIT hard-soft border dispute is right now playing-out what as a legacy of what it is that he was born into.

If I am allowed one teensy criticism of the Ascent of John Tyndall, it is nothing to do with the content, or the weight of it. It is only that the index is not as comprehensive as I would like. I found what I wanted in the text but not in the index. Specifically…no mention of Norwich where the Tyndall Centre HQ is located. Thankfully the Isle of Wight, my birthplace, is very well indexed.

There are nowadays several Tyndall name-sake organisations that I know of. Perhaps with the most genuine claim to his name because country of origin, is the Tyndall National Institute at University College Cork in Ireland. They research advanced communication and informational materials and technology. At the University of Central Lancashire in Preston is the John Tyndall Institute for Nuclear Research, Tyndall was a student in 1842 at the UCLAN precursor, then then wonderfully named Institute for the Diffusion of Knowledge. There must be other John Tyndall namesakes, but at the moment I think my Centre has the most legitimate name based on his science. (If we were to open a branch of operations in the US we would rightfully call it the Foote and Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research).

I also found out from reading the Ascent of John Tyndall that Tyndall delivered in Norwich an important keynote lecture at the annual British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting of 1868. The annual meetings of the BA continue today. Jackson writes ‘The Norwich Address is one of Tyndall’s most significant statements about the nature and scope of science, its power, its limits.’ These are topics that society and science is still wrestling with, and perhaps always will. It is central to how and why people, businesses, politicians and countries engage with action in response to climate change. Tyndall’s Norwich address spans science to society to values to soul, just as we do at his Centre.

I am minded to see how to get John Tyndall a Blue Plaque on the wall of the ancient Maids Head Hotel where he gave his BA talk of 1868. The Hotel still stands and claims to be the oldest hotel in the UK. Adjacent to Norwich’s medieval cathedral it is the location of the original Bishop’s Palace, so a site used for hospitality since the 1090s.

Having learned so much about John Tyndall’s the man, his life, his times and society, I am now even more pleased to be working at his namesake Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Jackson, R. (2018) The Ascent of John Tyndall. Oxford University Press. pp 556

This review by @asherminns

Image Credit : 
"Maids Head Hotel" by Rahul Nair is licensed under CC BY NC 2.0