150th anniversary of Tyndall’s greenhouse effect

Every scientist knows that this year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’, but not so many may be aware that another scientific breakthrough occurred that year. In 1859, the Irish physicist John Tyndall discovered that certain gases – carbon dioxide and water vapour in particular – absorb infra-red radiation. The discovery was established over a few short weeks, but it provided an explanation for the greenhouse effect, one of the great puzzles of science.

The Irish Times have accepted a piece I have written on Tyndall for their Irishman’s Diary slot next month. I like this column- it is a unique feature of The Irish Times, comprising an 800-word essay prominently displayed on the op-ed page, written by the house journalist 3 days a week and by a freelance writer on other days. I have written a few diaries on various Irish scientists in the past (see My Articles) and I hope one day to publish the ‘Science Diaries’ as a collection of essays.  Below is a draft of what I intend to say on Tyndall:

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John Tyndall: celebrated Irish scientist who discovered the greenhouse effect

Many readers will know that this year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’. Another breakthrough occurred in science that fateful year, this one with an Irish connection. The discovery attracted much less attention than Darwin’s theory of evolution at the time, but it has become one of the hottest topics in science today (literally).

In July 1859, the Irish physicist John Tyndall, one of the great scientists of the 19th century, established that certain atmospheric gases absorb heat quite strongly. This innocuous-sounding discovery was established over a few short weeks, but it provided the solution to one of the great riddles of science: the famous ‘greenhouse effect’.

The greenhouse effect was first proposed by the French polymath Joseph Fourier, almost a century before Tyndall’s experiments. Fourier had wondered how the earth maintains its warm temperature, and he speculated that while heat from the sun passes easily through our atmosphere on the way to earth, heat radiated outwards by the warm earth must somehow be trapped in the atmosphere. The hypothesis was highly controversial, as it was widely assumed that gases are transparent to heat.

Tyndall, a fierce proponent of the new experimental method of science, devised a series of simple experiments to test Fourier’s hypothesis.  Working in the dusty basement of the Royal Institution in London in the summer of 1859, he soon established that, while most gases are indeed transparent to light and heat, some gases – carbon dioxide and water vapour in particular – can absorb heat energy at certain wavelengths. As traces of each gas were known to exist in the earth’s atmosphere, the puzzle of the earth’s temperature was solved.

How did an Irish scientist come to make such an important discovery? John Tyndall was born in Leighlinbridge, County Carlow in 1820, the son of an RIC officer and land agent. On completing his schooling under renowned local teacher John Conwill, he started his professional career as a surveyor for the Ordinance Survey of Ireland.  He was soon transferred to a position with the Ordinance Survey in Lancashire, England, but became interested in the new experimental sciences of physics and chemistry emerging in Germany. He moved to Germany in 1848 to study under the famous experimentalist Robert Bunsen at the University of Marburg, returning to England with a PhD in experimental science in 1851. By 1853, he had been appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution, a position previously held by the renowned scientist Micheal Faraday.

Tyndall remained at the Royal Institution for the rest of his career, making important discoveries in diverse areas of science, from magnetism to optics, from the physics of sound to the behaviour of bacteria. He is probably best known for ‘Tyndall scattering’, the scientific explanation for why the sky is blue. A keen mountaineer, he became interested in the science of glaciers and made several important discoveries concerning their behaviour. He became extremely well-known in Victorian England as a public communicator of science and was a prominent member of the ‘X Club’, an influential group of prominent scientists who defended evolution and other new scientific theories from religious dogma.

Tyndall’s verification of the greenhouse effect was accepted by the scientific establishment, but not regarded as a matter of vital importance. He and his colleagues were aware of the output of Victorian England’s factory chimneys, but no-one drew a link between this pollution and the greenhouse effect.

Nowadays, evidence has emerged that the average temperature of the earth and its oceans has been gradually rising since the industrial revolution. Despite many uncertainties, the scientific consensus is that this global warming is associated with an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, an increase that has been produced by human activities such as industry and transport. The discovery has led to concerted international efforts to agree on targets for reducing carbon emissions worldwide, a process that is only just beginning.

What would Tyndall make of today’s climate problems? Like most scientists of his era, he would probably find it difficult to grasp that humans could have such a global effect on nature. On the other hand, he would be greatly depressed by the shrinking of his beloved glaciers. Above all, he would be astonished to find that, of all the scientific discoveries he made, the work he did in the summer of 1859 has become a major preoccupation of 21st century science.

Today, the work of this great Irish scientist is commemorated by the annual Tyndall lecture of the Institute of Physics, the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the UK, the Tyndall National Institute in Cork, Mount Tyndall in California and the Tyndall glacier in Chile.

*********************************

John Tyndall: celebrated Irish scientist who discovered the greenhouse effect

Many readers will know that this year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’. Another breakthrough occurred in science that fateful year, this one with an Irish connection. The discovery attracted much less attention than Darwin’s theory of evolution at the time, but it has become one of the hottest topics in science today (literally).

In July 1859, the Irish physicist John Tyndall, one of the great scientists of the 19th century, established that certain atmospheric gases absorb heat quite strongly. This innocuous-sounding discovery was established over a few short weeks, but it provided the solution to one of the great riddles of science: the famous ‘greenhouse effect’.

The greenhouse effect was first proposed by the French polymath Joseph Fourier, almost a century before Tyndall’s experiments. Fourier had wondered how the earth maintains its warm temperature, and he speculated that while heat from the sun passes easily through our atmosphere on the way to earth, heat radiated outwards by the warm earth must somehow be trapped in the atmosphere. The hypothesis was highly controversial, as it was widely assumed that gases are transparent to heat.

Tyndall, a fierce proponent of the new experimental method of science, devised a series of simple experiments to test Fourier’s hypothesis. Working in the dusty basement of the Royal Institution in London in the summer of 1859, he soon established that, while most gases are indeed transparent to light and heat, some gases – carbon dioxide and water vapour in particular – can absorb heat energy at certain wavelengths. As traces of each gas were known to exist in the earth’s atmosphere, the puzzle of the earth’s temperature was solved.

How did an Irish scientist come to make such an important discovery? John Tyndall was born in Leighlinbridge, County Carlow in 1820, the son of an RIC officer and land agent. On completing his schooling under renowned local teacher John Conwill, he started his professional career as a surveyor for the Ordinance Survey of Ireland. He was soon transferred to a position with the Ordinance Survey in Lancashire, England, but became interested in the new experimental sciences of physics and chemistry emerging in Germany. He moved to Germany in 1848 to study under the famous experimentalist Robert Bunsen at the University of Marburg, returning to England with a PhD in experimental science in 1851. By 1853, he had been appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution, a position previously held by the renowned scientist Micheal Faraday.

Tyndall remained at the Royal Institution for the rest of his career, making important discoveries in diverse areas of science, from magnetism to optics, from the physics of sound to the behaviour of bacteria. He is probably best known for ‘Tyndall scattering’, the scientific explanation for why the sky is blue. A keen mountaineer, he became interested in the science of glaciers and made several important discoveries concerning their behaviour. He became extremely well-known in Victorian England as a public communicator of science and was a prominent member of the ‘X Club’, an influential group of prominent scientists who defended evolution and other new scientific theories from religious dogma.

Tyndall’s verification of the greenhouse effect was accepted by the scientific establishment, but not regarded as a matter of vital importance. He and his colleagues were aware of the output of Victorian England’s factory chimneys, but no-one drew a link between this pollution and the greenhouse effect.

Nowadays, evidence has emerged that the average temperature of the earth and its oceans has been gradually rising since the industrial revolution. Despite many uncertainties, the scientific consensus is that this global warming is associated with an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, an increase that has been produced by human activities such as industry and transport. The discovery has led to concerted international efforts to agree on targets for reducing carbon emissions worldwide, a process that is only just beginning.

What would Tyndall make of today’s climate problems? Like most scientists of his era, he would probably find it difficult to grasp that humans could have such a global effect on nature. On the other hand, he would be greatly depressed by the shrinking of his beloved glaciers. Above all, he would be astonished to find that, of all the scientific discoveries he made, the work he did in the summer of 1859 has become a major preoccupation of 21st century science.

Today, the work of this great Irish scientist is commemorated by the annual Tyndall lecture of the Institute of Physics, the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the UK, the Tyndall National Institute in Cork, Mount Tyndall in California and the Tyndall glacier in Chile.

Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh is the author of the science blog ANTIMATTER

9 Comments

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9 responses to “150th anniversary of Tyndall’s greenhouse effect

  1. Pingback: 150th anniversary of Tyndall's greenhouse effect « Antimatter | Germany today

  2. parviziyi

    Some criticisms:
    (1) Michael Faraday was appointed Fullerian professor of chemistry (not physics) at the Royal Institution in 1831 and did not hold a position as “Professor of Natural Philosophy” after that date, nor to my knowledge before that date. So it’s incorrect to report that Tyndall in 1853 was appointed to a position previously held by Faraday.
    (2) Tyndall did not explain why the sky is blue, and his speculations about it were unscientific and in fact way off the mark. In the lab he saw blue color in colloids due to scattering by particulate matter, and suggested in one or two sentences that that the sky’s blue might have the same cause, but he was thinking here about scattering by particulate matter in air. In the lab, he saw no scattering by pure air, i.e. no scattering by air that’s free of particulate matter.

    (3) The scientific explanation for why the sky is blue is practically always called “Rayleigh scattering”. Whenever the expression “Tyndall scattering” is used, it is almost always referring to scattering by particulate matter. Which is not the reason the sky is blue. Hence your statement that “He is probably best known for ‘Tyndall scattering’, the scientific explanation for why the sky is blue” is, in my reading, false and misleading. Tyndall is best known for his studies on radiant heat in gases and vapors. He got far more fame for that, both in his own time and since, than for “Tyndall scattering”. (E.g., it was the only thing he received a medal from the Royal Society for.)

    (4) Tyndall observed and reported shrinking of glaciers in the alps in his own day, and gave no indication of being unhappy about it. Hence your suggestion that “he would be greatly depressed by the shrinking of his beloved glaciers” is probably unfounded. In his book “The Forms of Water…”, published 1872, he says “for the last fifteen or sixteen years the glaciers of the Alps have been steadily shrinking….” and goes on to say that the process is grand and impressive, and he sheds no tears when discussing the fact that there are no longer any glaciers in Killarney.

    (4) You speak of Tyndall as an “Irish scientist” (or “Irish physicist”) not once, not twice, not three times, not four times, but FIVE times. I think that’s excessive and uncouth. Particularly since Tyndall self-identified himself as British.

  3. cormac

    Hmm…a little pedandtic, no? Try to remember that the piece is aimed at the layman, so a balance between accuracy and comprehension must be struck in a short essay.

    Re professor of physics, they didn’t have the subject in Faradya’s era – but most Tyndall biographers claim he effectively succeeded Faraday.

    Re Tyndall scattering, it was Einstein who gave the first correct explanation – but Tyndall is best-known for his explanation, flawed though it turned out to be.

    Re glaciers, there are many records of his concern at the shrinking of glaciers even in his own time – the point is that he would have been far more depressed by the prospect of a shrinking that may turn out to be far more longterm.

    Re Irish angle, Protestant Tyndall was proud of his Irish birth and once lost his job with the English Land Comission for defending the rights of Irish Catholic workers…by the way, the Diary slot is generally aimed at pieces that emphasise an Irish connection

    As the writer Paul Davies once pointed out, some scientists love to pick holes in the writings of others – usually ones who have no experience of writing for the public.

  4. parviziyi

    Faraday was still one of the leading active experimental scientists in England when Tyndall was appointed in 1853, and over the next decade Tyndall was heavily influenced by frequent personal contact with Faraday. Tyndall says that Faraday was his mentor. Thus it not at all “pedantic” to point out that Tyndall did not succeed Faraday in 1853. (He effectively succeeded him in 1862, and more fully in 1867.)

    I disagree with all of your other remarks as well, but won’t bother to take the time with you.

  5. cormac

    Yes don’t – seeing as you haven’t the courage to reveal your name.
    By the way, Tyndall preceded Rayleigh in his scattering hypothesis, and both are normally credited. Also, I mention ‘Irish’ 3 times, not 5 – try reading the piece carefully before you nit pick. Goodbye Cormac

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  7. cormac

    Thanks Sandra – I have no idea why that comment was blocked!

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