Skip to main content

Honors faculty fellow looks at life of Victorian physicist, mountaineer

John Lynch
March 05, 2013

John Lynch, honors faculty fellow at Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University, is fascinated with the physicist who answered the oft-asked question, why is the sky blue?

John Tyndall, a Victorian-era Irish physicist (1820-1893), is credited with being the first to offer an explanation about the azure hue of the sky. He also was the first to prove the greenhouse effect and to invent a system to measure carbon dioxide in human breath. His many years of work focused on a wide array of subjects, including atmospheric heat, air purification, glaciers, and even how to build a better foghorn.

Tyndall didn’t spend all of his time exclusively on scientific pursuits. He also was an accomplished mountaineer who was on the first team to reach the top of the Weisshorn and among the first to summit the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps.

Tyndall also was a prolific letter writer who penned thousands of pieces of correspondence and received an equal number in return from friends and colleagues.

Six thousand letters written by or to Tyndall are the focus of The John Tyndall Correspondence Project, a collaboration of researchers from universities in the United States, Canada, England, Ireland and New Zealand. Lynch is the collaborator from ASU.

The project – which began in 2008 and is funded by the National Science Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation – aims to collect, transcribe and publish Tyndall’s correspondence in print and in a searchable online format. Pieces of Tyndall correspondence are scattered in many places, including in Europe and the U.S. More than 6,000 items have been found and will be included in the project.

A main project goal is to engage scholars in the themes of John Tyndall’s correspondence, such as the relationship between science and religion, how Tyndall and his contemporaries worked to popularize science, and advances in physics and climatology.

The completed Correspondence of John Tyndall will be published in 16 volumes, with the first expected in 2015, and the last in 2022. A full Calendar of Correspondence also will be published.

Lynch will edit two volumes in the series: Vol. 4 covering 1852 and 1853 and Vol. 7 covering 1858 and 1862. Vol. 4 is scheduled for publication in 2016 and Vol. 7 in 2018.

Lynch, along with two ASU student researchers, already have transcribed more than 600 letters – many written in Tyndall’s tight and difficult to read hand, and some with parts scratched out and written over.

“John Tyndall is a fascinating character. He was a physicist, a mountaineer and a polemicist,” Lynch said.

“The project will shed light on one of the most important scientists of his time, whose work is still relevant today, and also provide a resource for scholars and researchers,” he added.