Science and controversy: a biography of Sir Norman Lockyer

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MIT Press, Oct 15, 1972 - Biography & Autobiography - 331 pages
One of the most important astronomers of his day and the inaugurator and first editor of the journal "Nature, " Sir Norman Lockyer was one of the key figures of the late Victorian period. The author of this eminently readable biography notes that among Victorian scientists, Lockyer is most nearly comparable with T. H. Huxley. Both thrived on controversy; but whereas Huxley generally came out the winner, Lockyer more often came out the loser. "Yet this, in its way, makes Lockyer the more interesting of the two: as he stood at a slight angle to the world view of his scientific peers, so he seems to hold up for us a mirror to their beliefs. Throughout it all he retained that self-confidence which is often claimed as a Victorian characteristic." Lockyer made numerous genuine discoveries in his studies of stellar evolution, solar prominences, spectroscopy, the orientation of Stonehenge and Egyptian monuments along major astronomical axes, and in other areas. If in the process of some of these studies he stirred up a dust of controversy, well, perhaps so much the better: certain scientific questions may have become "dusty" in the first instance simply out of intellectual neglect or sloth and could well use a public airing and brushing off. And if Lockyer was more often than not on the losing side, it should be noted that time has vindicated his intuition and perspicacity in a number of cases. For example, Lockyer was one of the first to suggest that atoms might not be the ultimate, immutable, "uncuttable" material entity, a scientific heresy in its day. Other "victories" were to be achieved posthumously. Giorgio de Santillana, introducing Lockyer's "The Dawn of Astronomy" (reprinted by The MIT Press in 1964), succinctly places Lockyer within the scientific milieu of his times: "Sir Norman Lockyer (1836-1920) was one of the major English astronomers of his time.... In 1870 he was appointed secretary to the Duke of Devonshire's Royal Commission on science; a few years later, on the foundation of the Royal College of Science in London, he became director of the solar physics observatory and professor of astronomical physics. From 1866, he had been a pioneer in sun and star spectroscopy. He inaugurated "Nature" in 1869 and edited it until his death. His interests went far afield, as we shall see.... "Lockyer's fame is solidly based on his study of the sun. In 1868 he described the flares and prominences as located in a layer he called the chromosphere, and applied the Doppler principle to its movements. In 1868 Lockyer and Janssen, working independently, discovered a spectroscopic method whereby the solar prominences could be studied in daylight, whereas previously they were observable only during a total eclipse.... Among his most important discoveries is that of a new element in the solar atmosphere that he called 'helium' and that was found later among the rare gases on earth." "Science and Controversy" makes all of this perfectly understandable to readers with only minimal scientific aptitude and a half-forgotten technical vocabulary. The strength and ebullience of Lockyer's personality and the grace of his biographer together assure a fascinating and lively account.

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The Militant Civil Servant
The Man of Letters
The Man of Science

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About the author (1972)

Meadows, Department of Information and Library Studies, Loughborough University, UK.

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