The news hasn’t improved. Far too many MPs in Parliament are proving to be selfish, stupid, arrogant and totally misguided. The media, particularly by the BBC (since that’s what we watch), seem to go out of their way to find members of the public with totally blinkered views of the world. Perhaps half the (voting) population still do think that leaving the EU is the best thing to happen since we won WW2 but that doesn’t make them right.
Before I curl up in a ball to shut out this bizarre world we live in, let’s talk about something completely different. Since the start of the year my bedtime reading has been a large tome of a biography of scientist John Tyndall (The Ascent of John Tyndall by Roland Jackson). It is perhaps not the most well-written and exciting biography but it does give a detailed picture of his life and the state of science in the UK and Europe in middle decades of the nineteenth century.
Tyndall is little known now, partly due to his wife outliving him by 47 years. She was intent on writing his biography but never managed to complete it. By the time she died in 1940 he had been forgotten. He wasn’t a genius to rank with Michael Faraday or Charles Darwin and made no paradigm changing discoveries. Neither was he a mathematical physicist like Clerk Maxwell or William Thompson (Lord Kelvin). He was in fact a superb experimental scientist who amassed accurate data on the topics that interested him. He was also a superb lecturer. During his more than thirty years at the Royal Institution in London (he was Faraday’s successor) he was the go-to attraction for thousands of men, women and children. Another reason perhaps for his slide from fame was that he flipped from one topic of interest to another, covering most branches of science. He started with an interest in magnetism, moved on to the interaction of heat (infra-red radiation) with gases and went on to champion the germ-theory of disease, collecting evidence that supported Pasteur’s and Koch’s work. Throughout his life he was also a keen mountain climber, spending a month or two in the Swiss Alps every summer and doing important work on the study of glaciers.
Much of Tyndall’s work is relevant today, particularly his work on the absorption of heat by gases and vapours. He did meticulous measurements to show that the atmosphere, particularly the water vapour and carbon dioxide, absorbs the infra-red radiation radiated out by the earth. He recognised that this had a warming effect (the Greenhouse Effect we call it now) that moderated the climate. He was also aware of the driving force this has on weather. Tyndall in fact provided the facts that underpin our present understanding of climate change.
Tyndall also explained why the sky is blue. That is that the short wavelength (blue) light from the Sun is scattered by the atmosphere more than longer wavelengths (red). He thought it was mainly due to dust (and bacteria) and water droplets in the upper atmosphere (it is actually the molecules of air itself).
So Tyndall has a lot of things to say to present-day scientists and non-scientists. His rise in society from a fairly ordinary, protestant Irish family to a well off star if London society is also interesting. Of course, the final piece of fascinating information about him is perhaps his death (look it up!).
I am still taking a rest from writing Jasmine stories but my fingers are busy on the keyboard nevertheless. This week’s topic for my writers’ club was “candles”. Being immersed in C19th science my thoughts turned to Faraday’s Christmas Lecture series “The Chemical History of a Candle”. The story that resulted is below. I began with the character being male, but once I had the ending decided that female would be more appropriate. What do you think?
Keeping the flame
“Stop it, Ellen. If you don’t behave, I will suggest to your father that you should not attend the Royal Institution this afternoon.”
Nanny’s words had an immediate effect on me. I did not want to miss the journey into London so I decided to do as she requested. I finished eating the lunch that had been placed before me and soon it was time to don clothes suitable for venturing into society.
Shortly before two p.m. I joined Father in the hallway of our home. Despite it being but the fourth day of Christmas there was no decoration. We had not celebrated the festival this year. Nanny fussed over me while Father urged us to hurry into the carriage. It was a typical December day, cold, damp, foggy and the air stank of the smoke from the coal that we and our neighbours burned in our house fires. Nanny wrapped a blanket around me for the journey. As we set off along the muddy street, I addressed Father.
“Papa, Mama said that Mr Faraday would lecture on ‘The Chemical History of the Candle’.”
He held up a slip of paper and peered at it. “That is indeed the title on the ticket that your Mother purchased before. . .” His voice faded away and he looked out of the window.
“How can he talk for a whole hour about candles?” I said
“That we shall find out soon, Ellen,” Nanny said, “Don’t upset your father.”
I was not to be diverted. “But we have gaslight in our house. Why doesn’t he talk about the Chemical History of Gaslight?”
Father sighed. “I am sure Mr Faraday has a very good reasons for the title of this year’s Christmas Lectures. He has been delivering them for over twenty years. I am certain that he knows what will instruct and entertain his audience.”
“Will he make explosions, Papa?” I asked, eagerly.
“Let us wait and see.”
It was only some two miles to Piccadilly but before we reached our destination, we joined a queue of carriages and cabs. Eventually we turned into Albemarle Street. All the traffic travelled at a very slow pace in the same direction. Father tapped his cane against the roof of the carriage. It stopped and we stepped down. Nanny took my hand as we walked the last few yards to the grand entrance of the Royal Institution. There was a crush, as many people were of the same intention.
We took our seats in the steeply banked auditorium. Below us there was a large horse-shoe-shaped table on which stood many pieces of apparatus and quite a few candles. Just one was lit. At last the crowd hushed and Mr Faraday entered through a door behind the table. Father had told me that he was the most famous man of science in the country, but he was quite a small, retiring man with white hair.
He began to speak and his voice filled the hall. He asked us all to look carefully at the lit candle and note that though the candlewax was the fuel that fed the flame, it was solid and upright.
For the next hour I was mesmerised by Mr Faraday’s talk. He explained the principles by which a candle gives out light so clearly and entertainingly and his demonstrations illustrated the points that he made so appropriately that I felt that, despite being of few years, I understood all that he had said. I was filled with enthusiasm for science and talked of nothing else on the dark journey home. As we stepped down from our carriage I spoke to Father.
“May I try out Mr. Faraday’s experiments, Papa?”
“I am sure that is possible, my dear. Nanny will supervise you but take care with the candle flame.”
I noticed that there was a tear in his eye, as I left him. I took Nanny’s hand and dragged her to the school room. She brought a candle from her room, and holding a taper to the gaslight, transferred the flame to the wick. I observed it closely as instructed by Mr Faraday and saw the little pool of liquid wax that formed just below the flame.
“I wish Mama was here,” I said.
“I am sure she is, in spirit,” Nanny replied.
“She would help me do Mr Faraday’s experiments, wouldn’t she?”
“Yes, Ellen,” Nanny’s voice wavered, “She would be pleased to see you taking up science. She was an admirer of Mr Faraday for many years and often expressed the wish that she could be a scientist too.”
“Why couldn’t she be a scientist?” I asked.
Nanny sniffed. “It is said, by men, that only men have the intellectual capacity to pursue scientific knowledge.”
“Then I will become one for Mama.”
The candle flame flickered as if in response to my resolution.