John Tyndall – Ireland’s Greatest Climate Scientist

Science in 1861 was very different to now, and entire fields of study and concepts that are now taken for granted – quantum physics, the theory of relativity, continental drift, the big bang, DNA, the uncertainty principle, black holes, an expanding universe with multiple galaxies – simply didn’t exist.

Climate Science, contrary to what some people might like you to believe, did exist 150 years ago,and it was John Tyndall, an Irish scientist, who first correctly measured the relative infrared absorptive powers of the atmospheric gases – mainly nitrogen, oxygen, water vapour, carbon dioxide, ozone and methane.

With the publication in 1861 of ‘On the Absorption and Radiation  of  Heat  by  Gases  and Vapours,  and on the Physical Connexion of Radiation, Absorption, and Conduction’, Tyndall was the first to prove experimentally the existence of the greenhouse effect, which had been postulated by Joseph Fourier in 1824. This helped form the basis of modern climate science, and it laid the groundwork for Svante Arrhenius who quantified the relationship between CO2 and temperature in 1896 with his greenhouse law which read as follows: ‘if the quantity of carbonic acid increases in geometric progression, the augmentation of the temperature will increase nearly in arithmetic progression’.

John Tyndall

Tyndall’s Life
Tyndall was born in 1820 in Leighlinbridge, Carlow. His father was a shoemaker and constable, and Tyndall attended local schools where he displayed an ability for maths. In 1839, at the age of 19, Tyndall started work for the Ordinance Survey – in Carlow at first, then in Cork, and in 1842 he began a brief spell working on the English Ordinance Survey. Tyndall was fired in 1843 in a protest over working conditions, and moved back to Ireland, before becoming a maths teacher and moving back to England in 1847.

By 1848, Tyndall had begun working at the laboratory of Robert Bunsen in Germany, and within 2 years he had obtained his PhD. He moved to London shortly afterwards, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1852, at the young age of 32. Tyndall spent most of his working life in London, and travelling the world popularising science. His lectures at the Royal Institute frequently drew more than a 1,000 people, and he became famous for his theatrics – while lecturing on rainbows, he went as far as to create an artificial rain shower in the auditorium, and arrived suitably dressed ‘wearing cape and sou’wester’.

A true renaissance man, he wrote on everything from ‘Scientific use of the imagination’, to trying to discover why the sky was blue – which he successfully explained, and to this day the scattering of light by particles in the atmosphere that causes this is known as the ‘Tyndall Effect’. He also wrote extensively about glaciers, and was a keen mountaineer – one of the sub-peaks of the Matterhorn is known as Pic Tyndall as he was the first to climb it.

He died in 1893, by which time he had been recognised by his peers as one of the great public figures of nineteenth century science.

On the Absorption and Radiation of Heat by Gases and Vapours, and on the Physical Connexion of Radiation, Absorption, and Conduction’

Tyndall's !861 Lecture

Tyndall’s 1861 Royal Society Lecture is well worth a read – both for its importance in helping found modern climate science and infra-red spectroscopy, but also for the insight it provides into how scientists worked in Victorian times. A significant amount of the paper describes the trouble he had obtaining the raw materials for his experiments, and thanking various benefactors who helped him out with donations of the required materials. It reads more like a short story than a modern scientific paper, and is a fascinating insight into how dedicated a scientist had to be to advance the cause of knowledge, and how reliant they were on the good will and support of others to do this.

It was a time when human knowledge was expanding out in all directions, and before science had become as specialised as it is now. Tyndall’s work covered a vast range of topics, and some of the conflicts he faced in society would be familiar to modern day scientists. After the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’ in 1859, his vocal support for Darwin’s Theory of Evolution brought him into conflict with the churches of the day, and he was a passionate advocate for the separation of faith and science.

Tyndall was elected president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1874, and he gave a long keynote speech at the Association’s annual meeting held that year in Belfast. He spoke of the theory of evolution favorably, and mentioned Darwin’s name over 20 times. He concluded by asserting that religious sentiment should not be permitted to “intrude on the region of knowledge, over which it holds no command“. Given that some modern climate deniers have advocated ‘praying for rain’ as a solution to a changing climate of droughts and heat waves, it appears that some things never change.

Tyndall’s work on infra-red spectroscopy laid the groundwork for modern climate science, but also had other uses. His work on detecting the percentage of CO2 in exhaled air is still used as the basis for monitoring modern hospital patients under anaesthesia. Tyndall engaged in pioneering work on the propagation of sound, and worked on a large-scale project to develop a better foghorn. He also invented a fireman’s respirator that filtered noxious fumes from the air, and the light-pipe which is still used today in gastroscopes, and was a fore-runner of modern fibre-optics.

Tyndall Today
Tyndall’s reputation is still growing, and today he is ranked with the greatest physicists of the 19th and 20th century – “Fourier, Tyndall, Arrhenius, Kirchoff, Planck and Einstein”, (Ray Pierrehumbert, Physics Today, Jan 2011). The Irish Tyndall National Institute bears his name, as does the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the UK. Recognition of his importance and influence is still growing, bolstered by projects like Transcribing Tyndall, and the Tyndall Correspondence Project, along with the work of many different historians and researchers.

Tyndall Conference 2011
This year is the 150th anniversary of Tyndall’s seminal lecture, and to celebrate this a major scientific conference is being held in Dublin Castle from September 28th to 30th. The conference will highlight Tyndall’s achievements, and also examine developments in key areas of climate science, current scientific issues and their implications. It will also celebrate the increasing recognition of Tyndall’s work and reputation. For further information, see

There will also be a public lecture in the Mansion House on September 27th with speaker Richard Somerville as part of the EPA’s ongoing climate lecture series, highlighting Tyndall’s work and contribution to climate science.

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3 Responses to John Tyndall – Ireland’s Greatest Climate Scientist

  1. John Gibbons says:

    Well said, Paddy. Tyndall reminds us of a bygone era when society was slowly, painstakingly finding its way towards a fact-based, rational view of a world that had been dominated for centuries by anti-scientific dogma and hardcore ideology, much of it of course emanating from Vatican City.

    What goes around seemingly comes around too…as we now find ourselves, in the second decade of the 21st century in a new Age of Unreason. Seriously shitty timing to suddenly get collectively stoooopid again, just as the biosphere creaks ominously over our heads and below our feet.

    I have visions of John Tyndall spinning in his grave a year or so back when our hilariously titled ‘Science Minister’ of the time was supporting the launch of a nasty little anti-evolutionary book written by a hardcore dumbell who should, had he the wit, have dedicated the whole sorry excuse for a learning impairment to Messrs Dunning and Kruger!

    Look forward to the conference in September and hope to make it along for at least one day.

  2. Pingback: Tyndall in the news « Transcribing Tyndall

  3. Paddy Morris says:

    There was a good piece in The Irish Times on this yesterday: ‘The Irishman behind the science of climate change’

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