Saturday 2 August 2014

The Pride of Leighlinbridge

I was in Leighlinbridge a few months ago in a Pub Quiz, and everyone finished up richer for the experience.  I knew that I was only a few meters from the birthplace of John Tyndall the most famous scientist from Co Carlow, but it didn't help our team to triumph.  I've mentioned his take on "Daddy Daddy, why is the sky blue?".  The Pride of Leighlinbridge sounds like a horse but Tyndall was certainly not a one-trick pony.  There are those at The Institute who claim that William Dargan is "the most famous scientist from Co Carlow" but he's not, he's from Killeshin across the river and into the wilds of Co Laois. He just caught the train in Carlow  . . . and he's not really scientist but an engineer.

Tyndall was the son of an immigrant from Gloucestershire, who was at the time a police constable and also a member of the Orange Order and the agent for one of the local protestant gentry. After decades of Ian Paisley referring to the Pope as the Whore of Babylon and watching sashed-up marching bands parading about in Norn Iron, we tend to think of the Orange Order as being a) sectarian b) intolerant c) noodle-heads. But lookit, I have it on good authority (from a grateful constituent of the RC persuasion) that Paisley was an excellent constituency politician who would fight the corner for 'his people' in matters of planning and disputes and rights regardless of which church they attended.  John Tyndall's father started his, clearly bright-as-a-button and sharp-as-a-tack, son on an upward trajectory by getting him the best possible education. That involved enrolling him in the (catholic) school 5km up the Barrow River tow-path in Ballinabranna because Master Conwill was the best teacher in the area. Another Orangeman who was not rigidly doctrinaire.  Two anecdotes don't make data, but they might hmmmm? open our minds a bit about Orange being Black. That beard looks extraordinarily and uncomfortably like coconut matting.

Tyndall grew up and, through his 20s, tried various jobs, including the Ordnance Survey and as a land-surveyor for the railways: quite possibly working for William "Laois!" Dargan who was 20 years his senior. But he left the country and became a school teacher in the South of England in 1847 where he met another talented young wannabee scientist called Edward Frankland. After a single year teaching schoolboys they set off together for Germany where they became students of Robert "Burner" Bunsen. Bunsen trained them up to be real scientists and they returned to England where Tyndall pursued original investigations into magnets. This secured him election to the Royal Society the following year at the age of 32 - you could do that then before science got crowded.  Nobody would call Tyndall a narrow specialist and the breadth of his accomplishments boggles the modern mind.  He, like Agassiz, worked on glaciers and got into a priority dispute with James "Seismometer" Forbes FRS FRSE FGS who reckoned he'd had all the correct ideas about how glaciers work.  Tyndall's response was more measured and inclusive, and accordingly has the ring of likelihood "The idea of semi-fluid motion belongs entirely to Louis Rendu; the proof of the quicker central flow belongs in part to Rendu, but almost wholly to Louis Agassiz and Forbes; the proof of the retardation of the bed belongs to Forbes alone; while the discovery of the locus of the point of maximum motion belongs, I suppose, to me."  That generosity of spirit is rare enough in science.

Tyndall was also a memorable and dedicated teacher, especially in the realm of explaining science to real people.  Every alternate year from 1861 to 1884, he was invited to give The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures - a wonderful and now televised institution in its own right.  He must have been good to have been brought out and dusted off each time for so long and many people have testified to his engaging manner and nifty ways of explaining difficult concepts. This skill is also rare among contributing scientists and possibly more valuable than any particular scientific discovery. Unless the next generation is inspired by science, they'll all slope off and become bankers - and then where would we be?  I sometimes imagine that, like King Arthur will come back to save England in its hour of greatest need, John Tyndall will appear in The Institute to show us how to rethink our same-old tired-old lectures so that they really sing.  But Tyndall is unlikely to return to Ireland - he turned his back on his natal soil when he became convinced that the Home Rule movement was a smoke-screen for an anti-scientific, retrogressive drive to medievalism by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Your own antecedents will tell you whether to accept or reject this thesis.
Oh, and it's the great man's birthday: 2nd August 1820

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