Cleveland Comhrá: John Tyndall

Cleveland Comhrá: John Tyndall
By Bob Carney

John Tyndall was one of the greatest of the 19th century scientists. He was born in Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow on August 2,1820. The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, The Tyndall National Institute, The Pic Tyndall Summit on the Matterhorn in the Alps, there are also several Mount Tyndalls, Tyndall’s Glaciers and craters on the Moon and Mars are named in his honor. There is even a color named for him, Tyndall Blue.

In Leighlinbridge, his early education was acquired at hedge schools. These were small, secret and illegal schools that taught the children of “non-conforming” religions, Catholic and Presbyterian, the basics of education. Classes were held in homes and sometimes, when weather permitted outdoors, in the hedges so to speak.

Hedge School
Tyndall was fortunate to have an excellent teacher, John Conwill, who made sure he had strong foundations in math, English composition, drawing and surveying. After completing his studies with Conwill, he  took a job as a surveyor for the Ordnance Survey of Ireland.

Tundall worked in Carlow, Youghel and Kinsale until 1842, when he was transferred to the English Survey and relocated to Preston. In Preston he worked during the day and attended night classes at Mechanics Institute.

He took a position as a mathematics teacher at the Queenswood School in Hampshire in 1847. There, along with chemist Edward Frankland, Tyndall established the first widely used school teaching laboratory.

 The following year, Tyndall and Frankland travelled to Marburg, Germany to study for the newly formed PhD degree. He earned his degree after two years and returned to England, once again teaching at Queenswood.

The Royal Institution in London offered him the Professorship of Natural Philosophy in 1853. He accepted the position and later became Superintendent, in 1867.

His position at the institute called for him to give lectures to the general public. This was a task he excelled at;he was able to take complex scientific topics and explain them so that the average layperson could comprehend them.

Tyndall became well known and sought after as a speaker. In the 1870s, he toured America, delivering his lectures to packed venues.

Why is the Sky Blue
Tyndall’s scientific interests included the study of heat, sound, light and environmental phenomena. We know why the sky is blue because of Tyndall’s explanation of the scattering of light by small particles in the atmosphere. That color we see in the sky on a clear day is Tyndall Blue.

Tyndall corresponded with Louis Pasteur and resolved a debate that was occurring in biology at the time. He was able to prove that spontaneous generation of life did not occur, and that bacteria or germs did exist. Then he set to work on a method to destroy bacteria in food. The process known as Tyndallisation is more effective than Pastuerisation.

Tyndall made many scientific dicoveries in different fields. He invented the first fireman’s respirator. He became an avid mountaineer and glaciologist. It was that love of the mountains and glaciers that led him to study the effects of heat retention on gases like carbon dioxide and water vapor.

Earlier work had established that the earth’s temperature was higher than expected, but it was thought to be the result of the atmosphere acting as an insulator. Tyndall found the correct explanation in what we now call the greenhouse effect.

Greenhouse Effect
He wrote: “Thus the atmosphere admits of the entrance of the solar heat, but checks its exit, and the result is a tendency to accumulate heat at the surface of the planet.” He recognized that any change in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could change the climate.

Research has shown that Tyndall was unaware of the work of an amateur female scientist in the United States named Eunice Foote. She had been able to prove that carbon dioxide could absorb heat three years prior to Tyndall’s experiment in 1859. She even suggested that an increase in carbon dioxide would warm the planet.

Warnings about the dangers of a warming planet are not new, nor is the science behind them. It seems as a species we are more inclined to be concerned about our immediate needs and wants than what we leave for our children.

At the end of the first quarter of 2021, when the three largest U.S. oil and gas companies were announcing their earnings (down because of the pandemic), investors once again were asking how the companies viewed the climate policy landscape. Exxon-Mobil CEO Darren Woods stated: “We are committed to providing products to help customers reduce their emissions.”

This year there was very little talk of climate when CEOs announced massive profits and investors were far more interested in share buy-backs and dividends allowing shareholders to  benefit from the profits, which is why we invest in the first place.

The oil and gas companies have been accused for decades of denying climate change and launching their own deflection campaigns in an effort to discredit the science. It is always more profitable to do business as a company has done then to attempt to change.

With the war in Ukraine, oil prices rose, making energy do a complete reversal from two years ago. It is now the best performing sector  on the S&P 500 Index that has seen valuations rise.

Unfortunately our futures and our children’s futures are taking second position to our immediate needs and wants. Who’s to blame: President Biden, Putin, the oil companies? Until we are ready to do something about this universally, politicians, consumers and energy companies it will remain this way. I can’t help but think back to one of my favorite comic characters from the newspapers, Pogo. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

*Bob Carney is a student of Irish language and history and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class held every Tuesday at PJ McIntyre’s. He is also active in the Irish Wolfhound and Irish dogs organizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hounds Rían and Aisling and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be reached at [email protected]


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