From Darkness to Green

On Wednesday this week I spent a very enjoyable few hours in London attending the Inaugural Lecture of Professor Alan Heavens at South Kensington Technical College Imperial College, London. It was a very good lecture indeed, not only for its scientific content but also for  the plentiful touches of droll humour in which Alan specialises. It was also followed by a nice drinks reception and buffet. The talk was entitled Cosmology in the Dark, so naturally I had to mention it on this blog!

At the end of the lecture, the vote of thanks was delivered in typically effervescent style by the ebullient Prof. Malcolm Longair who actually supervised Alan’s undergraduate project at the Cavendish laboratory way back in 1980, if I recall the date correctly. In his speech, Malcolm referred to the following quote from History of the Theories of the Aether and Electricity (Whittaker, 1951) which he was kind enough to send me when I asked by email:

The century which elapsed between the death of Newton and the scientific activity of Green was the darkest in the history of (Cambridge) University. It is true that (Henry) Cavendish and (Thomas) Young were educated at Cambridge; but they, after taking their undergraduate courses, removed to London. In the entire period the only natural philosopher of distinction was (John) Michell; and for some reason which at this distance of time it is difficult to understand fully, Michell’s researches seem to have attracted little or no attention among his collegiate contemporaries and successors, who silently acquiesced when his discoveries were attributed to others, and allowed his name to perish entirely from the Cambridge tradition.

I wasn’t aware of this analysis previously, but it re-iterates something I have posted about before. It stresses the enormous historical importance of British mathematician and physicist George Green, who lived from 1793 until 1841, and who left a substantial legacy for modern theoretical physicists, in Green’s theorems and Green’s functions; he is also credited as being the first person to use the word “potential” in electrostatics.

Green was the son of a Nottingham miller who, amazingly, taught himself mathematics and did most of his best work, especially his remarkable Essay on the Application of mathematical Analysis to the theories of Electricity and Magnetism (1828) before starting his studies as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge which he did at the age of 30. Lacking independent finance, Green could not go to University until his father died, whereupon he leased out the mill he inherited to pay for his studies.

Extremely unusually for English mathematicians of his time, Green taught himself from books that were published in France. This gave him a huge advantage over his national contemporaries in that he learned the form of differential calculus that originated with Leibniz, which was far more elegant than that devised by Isaac Newton (which was called the method of fluxions). Whittaker remarks upon this:

Green undoubtedly received his own early inspiration from . . . (the great French analysts), chiefly from Poisson; but in clearness of physical insight and conciseness of exposition he far excelled his masters; and the slight volume of his collected papers has to this day a charm which is wanting in their voluminous writings.

Great scientist though he was, Newton’s influence on the development of physics in Britain was not entirely positive, as the above quote makes clear. Newton was held in such awe, especially in Cambridge, that his inferior mathematical approach was deemed to be the “right” way to do calculus and generations of scholars were forced to use it. This held back British science until the use of fluxions was phased out. Green himself was forced to learn fluxions when he went as an undergraduate to Cambridge despite having already learned the better method.

Unfortunately, Green’s great pre-Cambridge work on mathematical physics didn’t reach wide circulation in the United Kingdom until after his death. William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, found a copy of Green’s Essay in 1845 and promoted it widely as a work of fundamental importance. This contributed to the eventual emergence of British theoretical physics from the shadow cast by Isaac Newton which reached one of its heights just a few years later with the publication a fully unified theory of electricity and magnetism by James Clerk Maxwell.

But as to the possible reason for the lack of recognition for John Michell who was clearly an important figure in his own right (he was the person who first developed the concept of a black hole, for example) you’ll have to read Malcolm Longair’s forthcoming book on the History of the Cavendish Laboratory!

2 Responses to “From Darkness to Green”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    It’s encouraging to see that George Green uses the ArXiv these days, despite dying in 1841.

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