School days

It is the middle of August and also the middle of what in German is known as Saure-Gurken-Zeit, in English as the silly season and in American as the dog days. It’s that time when parliaments are in recess, the politicians on holiday and the press is full of silly man bites dog stories. Even the history of science community is in a sort of half sleep with little happening and many of its members conspicuous by their absence. This being the case I though I would write a somewhat frivolous post this week before I too disappear off on holiday or a gathering of the clan in the beautiful city of Bath to be more precise.

It is common practice for schools to boast about the famous politicians, sports persons and show business celebrities who once, as snotty nosed kids, ran screaming through their corridors but what about the scientists? Which notable or significant scientist got their education at the pedagogical institution where you acquired the ability to write grammatical sentences and to find the derivatives of simple trigonometrical functions? To start the ball rolling I shall tell you of my historical scientific school chums and I hope you will tell me of yours in the comments.

I will admit to having an advantage as the grammar school that I attended has a somewhat more than eight hundred year history giving them lots of time to have educated one or other scientific luminary. From September 1963 till July 1969 I was a pupil of Colchester Royal Grammar School (CRGS) for boys, one of England’s most elite state schools; the first four years as a day boy, the last to as a boarder. Founded at the beginning of the thirteenth century, 1206 to be precise, and adorned with not one but two royal charters, Henry VIII (1539) and Elizabeth I (1584), it has boasted one of the highest Oxbridge entrance rates and best A-level averages almost every year since the WWII. It would be very surprising if this august educational institution had not thrown up a notable scientist over the centuries and in fact it can boast at least three.

School House CRGS pre-1908. The first floor window to the left of the main entrance in the middle was my bedroom for two years.
Source Wikimedia Commons

CRGS’s first and possibly most famous scientist (if you’ll excuse the anachronistic use of the term) was William Gilbert (1544–1603). Born in Colchester he followed his time at the school by becoming one of those Oxbridge statistics in 1558, St. John’s College Cambridge to be precise, where he graduated BA in 1561, MA in 1564 and MD in 1569. He moved to London where he followed a successful medical career. Elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians he became their president in 1600. He became personal physician to Elizabeth I in 1601 and to James IV and I and 1603 the year of his death.

William Gilbert (1544–1603) artist unknown.
Source: Wellcome Library via Wikimedia Commons

Gilbert is of course most famous for his De Magnete, Magneticisque Corporibus, et de Magno Magnete Tellure (On the Magnet and Magnetic Bodies, and on That Great Magnet the Earth) published in London in 1600, regarded as one of the first ‘modern’ science books. This legendary scientific publication was much admired in its time and exercised a great influence on the development of experimental physics in the first half of the seventeenth century. Galileo praised it but thought it had too little mathematics and Kepler based his theory of a planetary force holding/driving the planets in their orbits on a magnetic monopole theory derived from Gilbert’s book. Based on his false belief that a terrella (a spherical magnet) revolves on its axis and his correct assumption that the earth is a large spherical magnet, Gilbert hypothesised a diurnal rotation for the earth. His theory had a major influence on the acceptance of a helio-geocentric system with diurnal rotation (as opposed to one without) in the first half of the seventeenth century.

There is a certain irony in the fact that although Gilbert is thought to have attended CRGS, as his name is attached to another school in Colchester, The Gilberd School. Gilberd is an alternative spelling of the family name.

We fast-forward almost a century to CRGS’s next scientific luminary, Francis Hauksbee (1660-1730). Not as famous as Gilbert, Hauksbee is still a notable figure in the history of science. Also a born Colcestrian, Hauksbee original apprenticed as a draper to his older brother in 1678 but at some point he became an assistant to Isaac Newton. In 1703 he became Robert Hooke’s successor as curator, experimentalist and instrument maker at the Royal Society.

From 1705 onwards he concentrated his experimental efforts on the phenomenon of electricity, a word coined by Gilbert in his De Magnete, publishing his investigations in his Physico-Mechanical Experiments on Various Subjects in 1709. In 1708 he independently discovered Charles’s law of gasses. Being something of an unsung hero of science it is fitting that in 2009 the Royal Society created the Hauksbee Awards to recognise “the unsung heroes of science, technology, engineering and maths for their work and commitment.”

We now spring into the nineteenth century to a scientist who whilst probably not as well known as Gilbert was truly one of the giants of science in his time, George Biddle Airy (1801– 1892).

George Biddell Airy (1801-1892)
John Collier / 1883
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Born in Alnwick in Northumberland he attended CRGS after an elementary school in Hereford. Like Gilbert he went up to Cambridge University, in his case Trinity College, in 1819. He graduated senior wrangler in in 1823, became a fellow of Trinity in 1824 and became Lucasian professor of mathematics, Newton’s chair, in 1826. He moved to the Plumian chair of astronomy in 1828 and was appointed director of the new Cambridge observatory. The list of Airy’s appointments and scientific achievements is too long for this light summer post – he published 518(!) scientific papers in his long live – but he was most notably Astronomer Royal from 1835 until his retirement in 1881.

George Biddell Airy caricatured by Ape in Vanity Fair Nov 1875
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As you can see CRGS can boast a trio of notable scientist in its long history, what about your alma mater? I do have to admit that I was expelled from CRGS in 1969 and finished my schooling at Holland Park Comprehensive in the school year 69–70. Much younger than CRGS, Holland Park was in my time as famous as the older establishment, as the flag ship educational establishment in the Labour government’s scheme to turn the English school system into a comprehensive one. I must admit that I know of no famous scientists who have emerged from Holland Park and my own memories of my one year there are largely of getting stoned and dropping acid; come on it was the late 60s and Notting Hill Gate!

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4 Comments

Filed under Autobiographical, History of Astronomy, History of Physics, History of science

4 responses to “School days

  1. Jeb

    I can give an ironic one, not related to me but my son.

    Class was asked in primary shool to speak about a famous relative if they had one.

    I was less than pleased by the question as he clearly felt he had to have someone important in the family.

    My partner is related to Hugh McDarmid and another relative was also Walter Scots best friend ( his servant and coachman) also a further relationship by marriage with James Hogg.

    List of some very serious Scottish literary figures.

    He came back home displeased with the humbleness of his connections as one of his classmates grandparants was ‘Particle Boson Higgs. Something to do with science’

    Was a few weeks after the noble prize had been awarded.

  2. Jeb

    p.s my partner was also a personal seretary for a dingushed physicists, when he was away on buisness she had to fend off other members of the department who all made requests to sit on the ancient chair that was sectioned off with velvet ropes in his office. His badge of office.

    A series of very famous bums had graced it in the past. Being able to touch the past like that brings out the child in some otherwise rather serious folks.

  3. Mike Jacovides

    My high school graduated Randal Bryant, who helped develop binary decision diagrams in computer science. The most impressive US secondary school for science alumni is probably Bronx Science, which has graduated 8 Nobel Prize winners, including Weinberg and Glashow. Lycée Louis-le-Grand graduated Becquerel, Durkheim, and Poincaré among others.

  4. Well, I’m distantly related to Adam. I did go to middle school with a guy who pitched a no hitter while tripping on LSD. (I’m sure there’s a cricket equivalent to this baseball feat, with or without the acid; but I don’t know what you call it.) Doc Ellis was not only an acquaintance. He beat me up when I was 13 or 14 so I paid in advance for the right to drop his name.

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