Contributions to Science

Tyndall wasn’t simply a spokesman for the sciences, however – he also greatly contributed to scientific knowledge, publishing about 180 scientific articles over his lifetime. Early in his career he became fascinated with the similar processes involved in the cleavage planes of slate and in the veined structures of glaciers. Tyndall’s studies of these processes began in the mid-1850s, spending summers in the Swiss Alps and winters at the Royal Institution studying the properties of ice. By combining his field work and laboratory work with thermodynamics, Tyndall brought his research on glaciers to the attention of the European scientific community. He then studied the conditions that produce glaciers, leading him to the topic of radiant heat, particularly how gases absorb solar radiation. Throughout the 1860s his study of atmospheric gases continued, and he became one of the first scientists to recognize the earth’s natural greenhouse effect and how various gases affect it (hence Britain’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research). This work suggested other promising research avenues: the role of microbes in fermentation and the scattering of light by atmospheric particles, which respectively led to a new method of sterilization (“Tyndallization”) and, among other things, an explanation of why the sky is blue. 1869 was his annus mirabilis, seeing him become a member of the Metaphysical Society and being recognized by his peers by receiving the Royal Society’s Rumford Medal.