This biography describes the colorful life and achievements of a crucial but overlooked scientific figure in Victorian Britain, who established the physical basis of the greenhouse effect and why the sky is blue as well as maintained an impressive life outside science as a mountaineer, writer, and man-about-town.
Not only is he [Roland Jackson] a General Editor of The Correspondence of John Tyndall (ongoing from the University of Pittsburgh Press), but now, with The Ascent of John Tyndall, he has written the great biography the man has always warranted. In this brick-solid 500-page book, virtually every aspect of Tyndall's very active life is thoroughly and sympathetically examined: his youth, his marriage and steady rise in world of practical science, his constantly-branching interests, and his constantly-expanding circle of close friends. Refreshingly, Jackson doesn't shy away from the nuts-and-bolts of Tyndall's extensive scientific work—rather, he dives right into specifics and conveys it all wonderfully for the non-scientific audience. And throughout, he maintains a regular focus on the bedrock thinking that animated Tyndall's approach to his professional passions ... John Tyndall is fated to go right on being a member in good standing of that swarming crowd, the Forgotten Victorian Greats. But he has his book now, and that's cause for cheer regardless.
His [Tyndall's] most notable climbs included the first solo ascent of Monte Rosa (the highest peak in Switzerland), the first ascent of the Weisshorn ('the noblest mountain in the Alps,' in his words), and the first traverse of the Matterhorn, which he completed from the Italian to the Swiss side. Mr. Jackson, who has climbed the Matterhorn himself, vividly recounts these feats ... For completeness, Mr. Jackson seems to have felt duty-bound to include a great deal of information about Tyndall’s social engagements and itinerary, down to the menus of certain meals. Yet on other, more important matters, he is strangely silent. Often he tells us that Tyndall was depressed, unable to sleep or had breakdowns, yet he never offers any explanation ... As a result, Tyndall as a person remains elusive. Then too, Mr. Jackson’s account of Tyndall’s scientific work often lacks sufficient context to illuminate what was at stake ... One appreciates the moments in which Mr. Jackson does offer some help, but it would have been much more useful to know more about the larger context than the names of the peers and grandees with whom Tyndall dined.
Jackson recounts Tyndall’s fascinating life with impressive clarity. By keeping his focus so tightly on Tyndall the man, however, he loses the opportunity to draw key conclusions about Victorian science more generally. Tyndall mixed scientific celebrity with risk-taking and experimental finesse. His movements between the lecture theater, the laboratory, and the mountains, to say nothing of his social climbing, tell us what it took to make authoritative statements about nature at a time when the cultural value of science was vehemently debated ... Roland Jackson’s admirably complete biography is the first serious biography to appear since a patchy production appeared in 1945 ... It’s about time.