Brock science historian on international research team studying John Tyndall

John Tyndall, circa 1885.If John Tyndall were alive today, he’d “break the Internet.”The thousands of letters the 19th century physicist wrote on topics ranging from infrared radiation and Anglo-Irish politics to the state of his colleagues’ family lives and the intricacies of 19th century courtship rituals make him the consummate blogger ahead of his time.“Because of the sheer volume of the letters and journals, we can learn an incredible amount about the social history of the 19th century: the intellectual culture, the changing social structures,” says Elizabeth Neswald, a Brock science and technology historian.“Reading the journals, reading the letters, you really get a picture of what it was to be a scientist in that period, to become a scientist at that time.”Neswald, who is associate professor in the Department of History, is a member of an international research team that is producing a 16-volume collection of Tyndall’s correspondence. Directing the project are Bernie Lightman from York University and Michael Reidy from Montana State University.Headquartered at York University and Montana State University, the team – whose members hail from Harvard,University of Leicester, University of Auckland, University of Leeds, among others – is editing and annotating Tyndall’s letters.This means the researchers will provide introductions and notes explaining what Tyndall meant by certain expressions or providing background information to put what Tyndall writes about into context.The first volume of correspondence was published earlier this year, and researchers involved in the project have also collaborated on an edited volume situating Tyndall within 19th century British science.Neswald, who has been collaborating with the project since its inception in 2007, will be editing one volume and co-editing another. Part of her work involves transcribing and translating letters that German scientists wrote to Tyndall.Irish physicist John Tyndall first rose to fame in the 1850s when he made major discoveries in the areas of magnetism and diamagnetic polarity. He became a physics professor at, and later director of, the prestigious London-based Royal Institution of Great Britain in 1853.At around the same time, he began studying the action of radiant energy in the atmosphere, including the heat-absorptive power of gases, which laid the groundwork for understanding infrared radiation.Tyndall built, or improved upon, equipment used in laboratories. He also became a vanguard mountain climber as he conducted studies on glaciers and glacial flow. He wrote more than a dozen books on radiation, heat, glaciers, and other subjects.But what made Tyndall even more noteworthy was his ability to convey complex physics concepts to general audiences during his many popular public lectures.“This was the place to be seen for the upper middle classes, and Tyndall would give this great snap, crackle, pop lecture with the fun effects and things blowing up,” says Neswald.“He was a great communicator and a flamboyant performer. He was lecturing during a time when science was becoming public entertainment, ‘edu-tainment’ with all sorts of science centres and museums in Great Britain.“And he wasn’t from the upper class, either, so this is a new kind of scientist; it wasn’t the gentleman with the powdered wig thing anymore,” adds Neswald, noting that, beginning from around the 1860s, scientists started to become “working people, middle-class, or even in Tyndall’s case, working-class guys” who didn’t get their research positions because they were the privileged elite.As a science and technology historian, Neswald teaches science from Ancient Greece to the atom bomb and technology since the Industrial Revolution.Her current research focuses on the history of thermodynamics and the history of nutritional physiology in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with special attention paid to the formulation of modern nutrition theories and practices, and their effect on perceptions of the body.