Sunday, August 02, 2020

Scientist, inventor, educator and mountaineer John Tyndall

SUNDAY 2 August is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Co Carlow’s great 19th century scientist, inventor, educator and mountaineer John Tyndall.

As one of Ireland’s great scientists, he discovered, among many things, the science of climate change and why the sky is blue. He also developed the sterilisation method called ‘Tyndallisation’ and published what is considered among the first book in English on mountaineering. Even a crater on the planet Mars is named in his honour!

Tyndall was born in Leighlinbridge by the banks of the River Barrow and the legacy of his career is very much in evidence to this day.

He was educated by renowned teacher John Conwill at Ballinabranna, four miles from Leighlinbridge. He walked the Barrow Track to school and he recalled that on those walks Conwill and he solved mathematical equations by marking them in the mud and clay of the track.

From 1853 to 1887, Tyndall was the professor of natural philosophy at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, London. It was during this time he undertook his extraordinary work in such areas as magnetism, glacier structure and motion, the absorption of heat by gases, light-induced chemical reactions, sound, germ theory and advancing school science education.

In 1861, he published his important paper on the absorption of heat by gases and this is regarded as a founding paper of climate science. He was the first person to detect and explain the physical basis of the ‘Greenhouse Effect’.

In the 1860s, Tyndall discovered why the sky is blue. The scattering of light from colloids is known as ‘the Tyndall Effect’. His experiments proved that when sunlight hits the Earth’s atmosphere it is scattered by the presence of atmospheric gases and because blue light is scattered more than any other colour it is the dominant colour we see.

Louis Pasteur, the French scientist, wanted to prove his germ theory. He worked with Tyndall to develop solutions. In Ireland, people will be familiar with pasteurisation, the method used to ensure that bacteria are removed from milk. Tyndall developed a sterilisation method called Tyndallisation and it is used to this day as the foundation science of ensuring cleanroom techniques in pharmaceutical and IT manufacturing. Pasteur’s hometown of Dole, France is twinned with Carlow town in honour of the scientific connection between Tyndall and Pasteur.

In 1861, he published Mountaineering in 1861. This book was based on his exploits in the Alps, when he led the first recorded team to climb the 4,506 meters to the top of the Weisshorn. While in the Alps, he undertook many experiments on glaciers and the atmosphere. The peak below the summit of the imposing Matterhorn is named Pic Tyndall in his honour. As a result of his mountaineering exploits there are a number of Mount Tyndalls named in his honour around the world, including in the USA, Australia and New Zealand. There are also glaciers in Chile and the USA named in his honour.

John Tyndall died on 4 September 1893, after his wife Louisa accidentally poisoned him by mistaking a bottle of sleeping draught for an indigestion remedy.

Carlow County Museum and the Tyndall National Institute in Cork will mark the anniversary of his birth at 2pm on Sunday 2 August on Carlow County Museum’s Facebook page with an online broadcast with some eminent John Tyndall experts. The broadcast will feature Martin Nevin, a member of the Tyndall Committee from Leighlinbridge, who has promoted John Tyndall for nearly 50 years; Sir Roland Jackson, author of Tyndall’s biography The ascent of John Tyndall: Victorian scientist, mountaineer, and public intellectual and Julie Donnelly, head of access programmes, Tyndall National Institute. Alicia Premkumar of Planet Pals will be the MC for the event.

Martin Nevin is a native of Leighlinbridge and he along with Dr Norman McMillan and several other colleagues in IT Carlow have been promoting the great work of John Tyndall through the Tyndall Committee since the 1970s.

In 1981, the Tyndall Dargan exhibition was co-ordinated by the Tyndall Committee and was the main feature at that year’s Young Scientist Exhibition in the RDS, Dublin.

Sir Roland Jackson is a visiting fellow of the Royal Institution, London, where Tyndall spent most of his career. Roland is also a general editor of the Tyndall Correspondence, which is being published in 20 volumes. He was head of learning and then head of museum at the science museum. He was chief executive of the British Science Association, where Tyndall was its president in 1874. Roland is a keen mountaineer and has ascended many of the same peaks as Tyndall. In 2018, through Oxford University Press, he published the first biography of John Tyndall since 1945. The paperback version has just been published.

Julie Donnelly, head of infrastructure access programmes, Tyndall National Institute, first joined NMRC/Tyndall in 1985 as its first engineer. Throughout her time, Julie has been directly involved in many research projects, including co-ordinating an EU project investigating novel silicon process techniques for wearable applications. Since 2014 she has managed national and European access programmes and helped Tyndall to successfully build a global network based on the sharing of knowledge, resources and access to infrastructure. Julie will enlighten us as to how John Tyndall’s 19th century research is inspiring the work of Tyndall National Institute.

The event will be presented by Alicia Premkumar of Planet Pals, who is a student in St Leo’s College, Carlow. Alicia is known for her promotion of the importance of looking after the environment. Planet Pals was set up by Alicia and her friends in Scoil Mhuire gan Smál, Carlow when they were children, to raise awareness of climate change and what we can all do to reduce it.

The public are encouraged to get involved by undertaking, safely, their own Tyndall experiment at home. Tyndall National Institute will guide you through this Tyndall science-at-home project. Tyndall National Institute website will have the series of at-home experiments presented by families from Tyndall National Institute for kids and adults to duplicate. Upload your video or photo efforts at bending light or growing sourdough to be in with a chance to win a #Tyndall200 prize pack! The winners will be showcased during Heritage Week 2020 in mid-August.

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