Adrenaline Junkie

Jonathan Parry

  • The Ascent of John Tyndall: Victorian Scientist, Mountaineer and Public Intellectual by Roland Jackson
    Oxford, 556 pp, £25.00, March 2018, ISBN 978 0 19 878895 9

On 21 December 1859 John Tyndall, a professor of natural philosophy at the Royal Institution, set out to measure the structure and movements of the Mer de Glace, a glacier above Chamonix. In previous summers he had collected data on several Alpine glaciers, but no one had ever attempted to do so in winter. He got to Folkestone but bad weather meant crossing the Channel was impossible and he returned to London. The next day, confident conditions were improving, he set off again. The snow in France was thick and he didn’t reach Geneva until Christmas Eve. He then took a diligence to Sallanches, at the bottom of the track up to Chamonix, arriving at sunset to find, to his great surprise, that there was no sledge available for the formidable night-time journey. He did manage to hire a carriage, however, whose postilion claimed he could find the way since the snow would illuminate the track. Tyndall, unconvinced by this, refused to sit inside the carriage, and instead took off his bulky clothes and perched nervously on the outside, ready to jump off if they looked likely to hurtle over the edge. Although the horses ended up in a snowdrift at one point, they reached Chamonix and its shuttered hotel late that night.

This story reveals much about Tyndall, then nearly forty: his solitary determination, his stubborn independence and his indifference to religious conventions (so much for Christmas). Less well known are his cavalier impracticality and his extreme nervousness – unexpected traits in one of the most intrepid Victorian mountaineers. Roland Jackson doesn’t make much of the incident in his recent biography, which is immensely long and devotedly successful at unearthing the facts of Tyndall’s life from the hundred boxes of his private papers, but tone-deaf when it comes to interpreting them, contextualising them or putting them to best effect. Jackson describes the Mer de Glace trip as if it were a straightforward enterprise and omits Tyndall’s terror at the ride up the mountain, though Tyndall himself wrote about it vividly in one of his books.

Tyndall’s relentless activity grew out of a preoccupation with making his life worthwhile. Born in 1820, he spent his twenties as a surveyor for the Ordnance agency and for railway companies, before teaching surveying and engineering at Queenwood College, a utilitarian school in Hampshire. The 1840s was a decade of economic crisis and uncertainty for most, and spiritual and intellectual turmoil for many, including Tyndall, an Irish loner with a strong Protestant work ethic imbued in him by his Orangeman father. He lost his father’s religious framework as a young man but read avidly in theology, philosophy and self-improving literature, searching for another set of values to shape his existence.

He found one in the duty of work – for its own sake, but also in order to understand the underlying order of the world and ‘discern its harmonies’, as he put it in a lecture of 1854. The Queenwood boys’ innate curiosity about natural phenomena convinced him that God had endowed men with the drive to understand the rules governing the world around them – the same drive, he believed, inspired adult men to make technological inventions. Discovering God’s order was therefore an individual and a societal imperative. Tyndall’s main inspiration was Thomas Carlyle, along with transcendental idealist philosophers such as Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Carlyle was Tyndall’s supporter at his wedding in 1876, Tyndall a pallbearer at Carlyle’s funeral in 1881.) To labour towards higher knowledge wasn’t exactly self-denial in this conception, for the prize was to be a hero, a great man. Carlyle’s On Heroes (1841), especially the lecture on Luther, resonated with Tyndall. According to Carlyle, heroes possess a ‘great soul, open to the divine significance of life’. Their duty, he wrote, is to recognise and trumpet this divine significance, to ‘speak … sing … fight and work’ for it.

One of Tyndall’s fellow Queenwood teachers, Edward Frankland, had been invited to work with the chemist Robert Bunsen in Marburg, and in 1848 Tyndall decided to join him in Germany and study for a PhD, using his savings from railway surveying. In Marburg, he rose at 5 a.m., sitting in the cold in a dressing gown lined with cat fur, and worked on German, physics, chemistry and maths until ten at night. Having finished his dissertation on screw surfaces by early 1850, he discovered a more promising research area: the phenomenon of repulsion in a magnetic field that Michael Faraday had recently termed ‘diamagnetism’. In 1851 he returned to Britain, relying for money on teaching and journalism, particularly for the Philosophical Magazine, edited by William Francis (later of Taylor and Francis, the popular scientific publisher). Tyndall had been writing essays and poems for publication for years, but now discovered he had a great gift for clearly explaining new approaches to science. Francis liked him because he spoke his mind and enjoyed argument and controversy. These qualities stood Tyndall in good stead when he was invited to lecture at the Royal Institution in February 1853, in front of Faraday, its superintendent, and some of the most eminent and fashionable names in metropolitan science. He spoke on diamagnetism, challenging Faraday’s interpretation with charm and authority. Soon afterwards he was asked to give four more lectures and this turned into a contract to give 19 lectures a year, and on alternate years to give the six Christmas lectures that Faraday had made famous. He was also given the title of professor.

Tyndall had acquired his pulpit and for the next 34 years he was the Royal Institution’s foremost teacher of natural philosophy. He worked incessantly on practical demonstrations of physical phenomena. Some were spectacular, such as his deflection of light into a falling jet of water, which appeared to wash it downwards; others were deliberately simple. He discovered he was a showman: having once had to jump over a bench to retrieve a falling glass cylinder, he decided to incorporate this into his act. More than anyone else in Britain, he made physics a defined, vital subject. His main themes were familiar and relevant, as shown by the titles of the three popular books that derived from them: Heat (1863), Sound (1867) and Light (1873). One of his long-running investigations was into the reason the sky is blue; Tyndall managed to re-create the colour in an experimental tube, to the delight of most (but the anger of Ruskin, who thought the experiment defiled nature). In 1878 Tyndall demonstrated Edison’s phonograph to an audience which included Tennyson, and recorded ‘Come into the garden, Maud’ for them. As his fame grew, much of the mid-Victorian establishment came to hear him, including the prime ministers Lord John Russell and Gladstone. Tyndall was never tempted to take up a professional post outside London, partly because he was unfamiliar with university teaching and research – some academic physicists like James Clerk Maxwell disparaged his lack of higher mathematics – but mainly because he wanted access to the London social world, with its salons and clubs. London also provided more opportunities to boost his income: he lectured at the School of Mines for nine years, examined for the military academies at Woolwich and Sandhurst, and succeeded Faraday as scientific adviser to the Board of Trade and Trinity House, the British lighthouse authority. These positions facilitated a constant stream of books, journal articles and public pronouncements on matters of the day. By 1877 his annual income was £2000, of which he was able to save half.

Tyndall liked talking to aristocrats, or rather to that influential subset of the Victorian metropolitan elite interested in natural phenomena and their wider significance. But his social climbing can be exaggerated. Tyndall’s London life changed remarkably little over time. Until he was in his sixties he lived in the apartments of the Royal Institution and he had few possessions. He never sought or received honours from the state, and resigned as a government adviser on lighthouses in protest at the Board of Trade’s ‘despotism’. Though he attended lots of dinners, his terrible digestion made them a chore. He preferred to spend time with small groups of scientific friends, especially Frankland, T.H. Huxley, John Lubbock and Herbert Spencer, all members of the X Club. He enrolled in the Metaphysical Society in 1869 to ponder great matters of science and religion, but attended very infrequently.

His vocation remained that of teacher and experimenter. This included teaching science to women, who attended his lectures in large numbers. Jackson takes him to task for chauvinism, and indeed he opposed women’s suffrage and made some provocative declarations about the intellectual differences between the sexes. But he also appreciated that the promotion of public understanding of science required women to be better educated, precisely because they were more likely to be tempted by the blandishments of priests and by the attractions of spiritualists and séances (a particular dislike of his). The Royal Institution demonstrations showed women, and men, the superior beauty as well as the rationality of the laws of physics.

For all that, Tyndall clearly believed women were best fitted to be morally elevating domestic supports. He was at times desperately lonely, and Jackson quotes many ardent epistolary declarations of admiration for female beauty and its uplifting effects on the soul. But for decades they came to nothing. There was doubtless an element of monkish renunciation in this. He also seems to have been alarmed by female sexual forwardness of all kinds: prostitution on the streets in London and Germany, disgraceful ballet dancing in Frankfurt and what he enigmatically called ‘Amazonianism’. In 1876, aged 55, he married thirty-year-old Louisa Hamilton, who came from an Ulster Protestant Ascendancy family. Tyndall thought her ‘not beautiful – she is not even handsome,’ but her soul gave a ‘transcendent glow’.

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Tyndall’s fascination with the physical world was bound up with an intense curiosity about the body. How, for example, did humans receive and interpret colour and sound? How to make the leap from the molecules that constitute the body to the sensations it experiences? These were intellectual problems, but he was also acutely aware of the practical consequences of a heightened nervous state, particularly because of his regular insomnia. In 1862 a visiting American lecturer described him as ‘the most restless, nervous creature I ever set eyes on’. In fact he required excitement: his friend Thomas Archer Hirst noted that he came alive while mountaineering; only the presence of danger rescued him from depression. In the Alps in 1861, in the middle of a gale, Tyndall ran out to a tree which overhung a chasm, clambered onto it and clung on with ‘desperate energy’ for several minutes, all his timidity gone. After the deaths of four climbers during the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, he proposed to locate the last undiscovered body by fastening ropes high on the north face, letting himself down and swinging from side to side until he worked out where the man had fallen. He spent a fortnight in preparation and was only persuaded out of the idea after he’d bought three thousand feet of rope. The phrase ‘adrenaline junkie’ seems inadequate.

It was only logical, Tyndall thought, that the human body should play a role in the physicist’s search to identify God’s laws. At Queenwood, early rising was a test to see ‘what my body will bear’; he and Frankland experimented on themselves with anaesthetics. Other experiments induced heightened sensitivity, or what lesser men would call pain. In 1860, Tyndall and Hirst agreed that in science, as in religion, ‘self-chastening is the condition of inspiration’, a magnificently telling phrase. His inquiries into the absorption of radiant heat required him to work with noxious gases and vapours for eight to ten hours a day, which led to a recurrent cough. In later years he spent days at a time producing rainbows from paraffin oil and spirit of turpentine, clothed in a large waterproof and sou’wester.

The antidote, obviously, was fresh air and exercise. While carrying out his first major experiments on the Mer de Glace in 1857, Tyndall noted that ‘every fibre [of his body] seemed a repository of latent joy.’ (This was a variation on the concept of ‘muscular Christianity’, which was coming into vogue.) In the following years, Tyndall found that Alpine exercise banished ‘the vice of Primrose Hill’ from his muscles. But gruelling experiments, not pleasure, drew him to the Alps. In 1859 he was the first man to spend a night on the summit of Mont Blanc, so that he might measure how cold it got. On the same summit the previous year he spent so long measuring boiling water temperatures in the freezing conditions that his guide developed frostbite and lost six fingernails.

In his 1854 lecture on the study of physics Tyndall observed that examination of the universe came in two stages: first the inductive and experimental, which required a humble surrender to nature, and then the deductive, which used logic and imagination to produce conclusions that allowed nature to be mastered. Mountaineering was a branch of both. It involved training the nerves and muscles to test what they could bear, and educating the mind in the properties of ice and snow at different temperatures and gradients. After several weeks in the Alps in the summer of 1858, Tyndall felt ‘indurated’ and decided to attempt the Monte Rosa, the second highest mountain in Europe, on his own. Such solitary communion, earned by ‘long discipline’, was the highest ideal for the Protestant climber: solitude allowed him to sense that the air was ‘instinct with religion’, while intimate contact with the crags and cliffs permitted a ‘closer friendship with the universe’. Tyndall was the first man to stand alone on the peak, but problems on the descent, and the near loss of his ice axe, made him realise that the experiment had been foolish – particularly because he had set out with no coat and only one sandwich. His reward was a severe cold.

Tyndall always felt most vigorous when ‘cool’ and on expeditions swam naked daily in lakes or rivers. He once bathed in the Riffelsee (2757 metres above sea level) in a snowstorm and on another occasion in a cascade near Belalp in Switzerland, where he rolled ‘over and over in the delicious foam’ then jumped around ‘as from a springboard’ in the sunshine to dry. Landing awkwardly on a rock, he gashed his leg so badly that he was incapacitated for months with erysipelas. There were great successes too. In 1861 Tyndall and his guide, Johann Bennen, made the first ascent of the Weisshorn. In the process they had to walk for twenty yards along a snow-covered knife-edged arête with precipices on either side. Bennen realised that the ridge was passable only because of the condition of the snow: the perfect cleanness of its granules had caused them to freeze together so solidly that the cornice could bear the men’s weight.

Tyndall abandoned serious mountaineering in his late forties, but continued to visit the Alps almost every year and built a chalet at Belalp where he and Louisa spent long summers from 1876 (he diverted a mountain stream through the chalet to provide cold baths). Belalp provided a wonderful view across to the mountains of the Valais, including the Weisshorn and the great Aletsch glacier. His three books and many articles on his Alpine experiences – classics of the genre – show Tyndall’s progress towards a mountain-worship greater than that of any of his British contemporaries, and more vividly expressed. The vistas allowed his soul to take ‘the tint of surrounding nature, and … become majestic’. The crumbling ridge of the Matterhorn taught him how frost and wind shaped and reshaped seemingly unchanging rock forms. Sunset gave the mountains buoyancy: they ‘swam in splendour, which intoxicated the soul’. Nowhere provided a better education in the immanence of life and the organicism of the universe. Nowhere taught more insistently the laws of science but also their limitations.

Many of Tyndall’s contemporaries appreciated his pantheistic but innately Protestant idealism, just as they admired his plain-spoken empiricism and commitment to education. None of this was uncommon in 1870s Britain, and the roll-call of his friends and acquaintances – politicians, clergy, journalists, aristocrats – shows how easy it was for the bulk of the British Upper Ten Thousand, who were mostly practical and liberal on theological matters, to adjust to the Victorian scientific revolution, or at least to those parts of it they understood. Tyndall was married by Arthur Stanley, dean of Westminster, with whom he had worked ten years previously to draft a prayer willing the nation to meet a cattle plague with scientific rationality rather than a plea for divine assistance. Tyndall did, however, cause controversy with his presidential address to the British Association at Belfast in 1874, for which he was labelled a materialist. Observing that the evolution of plants and animals could now be understood without reference to powers of special creation, he said that in future men of science must wrest from theology ‘the entire domain of cosmological theory’.

Tyndall was here setting himself not against religion but against priests and mystics who used empty providential language to justify phenomena that were capable of being explained scientifically. These religious zealots were lazy and power-drunk, he thought, and relied on laziness and credulity in others. What gives the Belfast address its particular interest is its context. In 1864 Pope Pius IX had declared his infallibility and in 1870 the Vatican Council had ratified it, leading among other things to the Kulturkampf, the struggle between the Catholic Church and the newly unified German state. In Ireland, the Catholic hierarchy was becoming similarly assertive: it sought influence over the educational syllabus, opposing most science teaching. It also seemed likely that the rise of the Irish nationalist movement would give the Catholic Church political influence at Westminster. It was no coincidence that Tyndall chose to give the address in Protestant Belfast.

His argument was that the battle between men of reason and their opponents remained a constant one. In all eras, Tyndall claimed, religious leaders had appealed to the susceptible. Progress therefore had its limits; decline was a possibility. A second context of the address, which also contributed to the subsequent furore, was the widespread anxiety over the recent expansion of the franchise and the threat of further democratisation to come. In fact all sides were nervous about popular opinion – both Catholic and Anglican ecclesiastical leaders feared that the march of science would sap people’s respect for established religion. As a Carlylean, Tyndall had no faith in democracy, and as he aged he came particularly to loathe Gladstone, whom he thought of as weak-minded, a mere follower of fads and particularly unsound on religious and Irish matters. The loathing deepened when Gladstone declared himself in favour of Home Rule for Ireland in 1886. Tyndall spent much of the rest of his life campaigning against ‘the wickedest man of our generation’.

It was common for scientists and other intellectuals to move, as Tyndall did, away from Gladstonian Liberalism, disliking its populism and apparent lack of strong leadership. Tyndall’s increasing pessimism about national life may also have been connected to his state of health, which from the late 1870s seems to have been appalling. Was this decrepitude due to overwork, carelessness, insomnia – or even marriage? At some stage – as C.H. Creasey and A.S. Eve hinted in their 1945 biography – Tyndall seems to have become addicted to drugs. From youth he was a heavy smoker, and he liked a drink. As early as 1853 he was using brandy as an opiate. In Switzerland in 1865, he suffered from an unspecified ailment; Hirst stayed with him all night and administered ‘enormous quantities of laudanum’. By the late 1880s Tyndall’s sleep was so bad that neither chloral nor sulphonal were enough to knock him out, though opium sometimes worked. In March 1891 he took three opium pills and 16 grains of chloral in the space of eight hours. In 1892 he asked Hirst to send him a dozen bottles of whisky for daytime consumption. His drinking upset Louisa, who did her best to look after him; a friend told Tyndall he was imposing on her. One day in December 1893, she confused his chloral and the magnesia bottles, giving him a magnesia-sized dose of chloral. Within hours he was dead, though not before observing: ‘My poor darling, you have killed your John.’ This remark, Tyndall’s most famous, which haunted Louisa for the remaining 47 years of her life, could charitably be seen as a piece of scientific observation, but it was also unfair and self-deceiving. Jackson does not refer to the contemporary medical judgment that the dose would not have been fatal had Tyndall been in fairly robust health.

As Jackson acknowledges, later physicists neglected Tyndall on account of the lack of mathematical theory in his work and as a consequence of the turn away from classical physics to relativity and quantum theory. In fact physics for Tyndall was only part of a characteristically Victorian attempt at a total philosophy of life, and his lasting significance is as one of the 19th century’s greatest and most imaginative interpreters of the natural world. Those contemporaries who attacked him for materialism short-changed him, and so, ultimately, does this biography, for few scientists have been so insistent that without imagination and inspiration inductivism alone is not enough.