The Institute of Physics has erected blue plaques in various locations around the United Kingdom and Ireland in order to celebrate physicists who lived or worked in the locality.
Commemorative blue plaques in Scotland
Alexander Wilson FRSE (1714 – 1786)
1st Scottish Astronomy Chair (Glasgow 1760-1786)
Type founding entrepreneur and glass instrument maker. Famed for sunspot structure observations and promotion of universal gravity controlling stellar motion.
Unveiled by Professor John C Brown, FInst P, 10th Astronomer Royal for Scotland at theUniversity of Glasgow Acre Road Observatory on 28 March 2017
Alexander Wilson 1714-1786
Alexander Wilson was born in St Andrews being the son of the Town Clerk. He graduated with an MA from the University there in 1733 and became the apprentice to a local surgeon, Dr George Martine, who guided him in the arts of glassblowing. After a sojourn in London to try and establish a type founding business, he returned first to St Andrews and then to Camlachie, just east of Glasgow, where he was successful in that trade and in the production of glass blown instruments such as accurate thermometers and specific gravity beads for measuring the proof of spirits. He had connections with the University through his business and provided the Greek fonts for the exquisite production by the Foulis Press of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. He participated in philosophical discussions at his home and in the City. With Thomas Melville, one of his friends from the College, he conducted experiments to measure the temperature of the atmosphere at different heights by flying his thermometers on long kite lines.
When the Glasgow graduate Alexander MacFarlane of Jamaica bequeathed his astronomical instruments in 1756 to his Alma Mater, the College constructed the MacFarlane Observatory with its inauguration in August 1757, east of the main precinct in the High Street. As it turned out, while Wilson was in London, he had come to the attention of the Duke of Argyll who was favourably impressed by Wilson’s practical skills, particularly with his exquisite and accurate thermometers. Around the time of the establishment of the MacFarlane Observatory, the Duke was anxious to keep Wilson with his entrepreneurial skills and his business acumen in Glasgow, and he initiated an appointment in 1760 for Wilson to run the observatory’s operations as the First Regius Professor of Practical Astronomy. On his acceptance, Wilson brought his type founding business to within the College precinct renting premises there. An unfortunate legacy of this was that heavy metal residues from his type founding poisoned the physic garden of the College.
In 1769 he made his most significant contribution to astronomy by observing a sunspot which traversed the solar disk. He made particular note that the spot appeared to carry a ‘depression’ below the Sun’s regular surface when seen close to the solar limb. His drawings and their interpretation were published1 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. He speculated that the Sun had structure, with a hotter outer layer comprising an elastic luminous material covering a dark globe which emitted little or no light, an interpretation which was accepted for over a hundred years. He also submitted his work as the subject of a prize essay and was awarded a gold medal by the Royal Society of Copenhagen. He later supplemented his thesis by undertaking model mimicking experiments2 within the observatory grounds. He claimed that his discovery came about because he had used a good quality telescope rather than projection techniques or a ‘camera obscura’. The noted sunspot cavernous appearance became internationally referred to as the ‘Wilson Effect’ and occasional mention of it remains in modern solar research. Other observations made by him3 at the Macfarlane Observatory included the Transits of Venus in 1761 and 1769. He also made measurements4 on the positions and eclipses associated with Jupiter’s satellites; for his amusement he constructed a Jovilabe. He experimented with speculum mixtures in efforts to manufacture telescopes of increased apertures but his casts proved to be too brittle for use.
In 1777, Wilson wrote5 an important tract anonymously on the Universality of Gravity affecting the motion of stars, promoting the idea that Newton’s Laws are applicable beyond the Solar System and that the stars do not collapse on each other under gravity because they have motion. This notion was also being considered by Sir William Herschel and, when he published his famous work a few years later, he graciously acknowledged Wilson’s contribution.
With his son, Patrick, he used his thermometers to investigate the temperature of the snow at different depths during the cold winters of the period6. Some of Wilson’s thermometers were later loaned by Patrick to Herschel and these were instrumental in the discovery of infra-red radiation. All his published work and writings show a great modesty and diplomacy. There is a lunar crater ‘Wilson’ originally named after him but now carrying the attribute to two other unrelated Wilsons who have made marked contributions to science.
Professor John Brown and Dr David Clarke
1. Wilson, Alexander (1774), ‘I. Observations on the Solar Spots. By Alexander Wilson, M.D. Professor of Practical Astronomy in the University of Glasgow, Communicated by the Rev. Nevil Maskelyne, Astronomer Royal’, Philosophical Transactions, 64, 1-30.
2. Wilson, Alexander (1783), ‘VII. An Answer to the Objections Stated by M. De la Lande, in the Memoirs of the French Academy for the Year 1776, against the Solar Spots Being Excavations in the Luminous Matter of the Sun, Together with a Short Examination of the Views Entertained by Him upon That Subject. By Alexander Wilson, M.D. Professor of Practical Astronomy in the University of Glasgow, Communicated by the Nevil Maskelyne. D.D. F.R.S. and Astronomer Royal’, Philosophical Transactions, 64, 1-30.
3. Wilson, Alexander (1769), ‘XLIII. Observations of the Transit of Venus over the Sun, contained in a Letter to the Reverend Nevil Maskelyne, Astronomer Royal, From Dr. Alexander Wilson, Professor of Astronomy in the University of Glasgow’, Philosophical Transactions, 59, 333-8. 4. Wilson, Dr. (1769), ‘LVI. Eclipses of Jupiter’s First Satellite, with an Eighteen Inch Reflector of Mr Short’s. Observed by Dr Wilson at Glasgow Observatory’, Philosophical Transactions, 59, 402-3.
5. Wilson, Alexander (1777), Thoughts on General Gravitation and Views Thence Arising as to the State of the Universe. (London – Printed for T. Cadell in the Strand). [The tract was published anonymously.] 6. Wilson, Alexander (1771), ‘XXXVIII. An Account of the remarkable Cold observed at Glasgow, in the Month of January, 1768; in a Letter from Mr. Alexander Wilson, Professor of Astronomy at Glasgow to the Rev. Nevil Maskelyne, B.D. F.R.S. and Astronomer Royal’, Philosophical Transactions, 61, 326-31.
Dr Thomas David Anderson (1853 –1932)
Discovered two bright novae: Nova Aurigae 1891 and Nova Persei 1901, from his house at 21 East Claremont Street, Edinburgh
Unveiled by Professor John C Brown, FInst P, 10th Astronomer Royal for Scotland on 8 October 2014
Anderson was an amateur astronomer who discovered two bright novae: Nova Aurigae 1891 and Nova Persei 1901. Both objects were important, as the discoveries occurred at a time when there were rapid developments in astronomy, such as the development of the spectroscope, which allowed the astrophysics of novae to be investigated. In fact, Nova Aurigae 1891 was the first nova to have its spectrum photographed.
Anderson was born in Saxe-Coburg Place, Edinburgh on 6 February 1853. He obtained a degree in Classics from Edinburgh University in 1874 and went on to train at the Scottish Congregational College, ultimately gaining a doctorate for a thesis on Latin conjunctions. Having completed his training, what he described as “a grave misfortune” overcame him. His myopia had suddenly increased to a point where he found it impossible to write sermons. Consequently he relinquished his career in the Christian Ministry and took up observing the night sky. It has been suggested that extreme myopia might have been something of an excuse as he was an intensely shy and retiring personality and his disposition might not have been compatible with a career that involves contact with many people.
Anderson resolved to take up observational astronomy full time and he had sufficient means from his wealthy father to do so. He was fascinated by the stories of nova discoveries of the past and thus resolved to scan the night sky for the appearance of novae from his residence at 21 East Claremont Street, Edinburgh. He made first discovery, Novae Aurigae, towards the end of January 1892 which he reported to Professor Ralph Copeland at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh. Copeland confirmed the discovery and Anderson received praise from the astronomical community for his discovery. Examination of photographic patrol plates showed it had first appeared on 10 December 1891, but had not been noticed at the time.
The discovery of Nova Aurigae was a great encouragement to Anderson who continued to patrol the skies. Before retiring to bed in the small hours of the morning of 22 February 1901 he “was casting a casual glance round the heavens” and found a bright new star shining low in the north-western sky. Once again he report the discovery to Copeland and the object was confirmed as Nova Persei 1901 – the following night it was the third brightest star in the night sky. A few months later, large telescopes revealed a shell of expanding nebulosity around the nova, which astrophysicists now understand was hydrogen gas blown into space by the nova explosion.
Following the discovery of Nova Persei, Anderson was presented with a number of awards including the prestigious Gunning Victoria Jubilee Prize of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Jackson-Gwilt Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society.
In the course of his search for novae, Anderson also discovered more than fifty variable stars. He also independently discovered a comet in 1892 (Comet Holmes) and the bright novae in Aquila in 1918.
Anderson left Edinburgh in 1905 as a result of increasing light pollution in the City. He continued to observe from his rural locations and eventually passed away on 31 March 1932, aged 79 years. Sadly, there were no obituaries published and he has largely been forgotten. It is thus hoped that the Blue Plaque will bring to the attention the indefatigable watcher of the skies, Dr Thomas David Anderson, and his important discoveries.
Thomas Henderson FRS, FRSE, FRAS (1798-1844)
1st Astronomer Royal for Scotland
First Measurement of Distance to Alpha Centauri, one of the nearest stars
Location: 1 Hillside Crescent, Edinburgh
Unveiled by Professor John C Brown, FInst P, 10th Astronomer Royal for Scotland on 8 October 2014
Born in Dundee 28 December 1798, Thomas was the youngest of the family of 3 daughters and 2 sons of Thomas Henderson, tradesman, and Isabell Rollo. He excelled in all his school subjects and received special tuition in mathematics, physics and chemistry by the gifted rector of the High School Thomas Duncan, later professor of mathematics at St Andrews University. At 15, he followed his elder brother John as a legal secretary in Dundee, then in Edinburgh, and was finally promoted to be secretary to the Lord Advocate. Already with a keen (self-taught) interest in astronomy, he became a member of the Edinburgh Astronomical Institution and often went to London on legal business where he met John Herschel, George Biddell Airy and Sir James South who gave him full access to his magnificent observatory at Camden. His work at that time included a paper in Philosophical Transactions on the longitude difference between Greenwich and Paris and a new method of determining longitude from lunar occultation timings.
Based on these creative skills, Henderson was proposed as superintendent of the Nautical Almanac, but that post reverted to the Astronomer Royal, John Pond, However, the post of His Majesty’s Astronomer at the Cape became available and Henderson was persuaded to accept it, being regarded by Airy, and Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane (eminent early astrometrist and long term President of RSE) and others as the best candidate. Despite problems with colleagues and equipment there , this post resulted (after Henderson returned to Edinburgh) in a catalogue of 172 southern stars, data on Encke’s and Biela’s comets, a transit of Mercury, occultations of Jupiter’s satellites and new estimates of the parallax of the moon, the most accurate to date, and of the sun, somewhat larger than the accepted figure. Above all, at the Cape, he made careful repeated observations using the mural circle of the zenith distance of the star alpha Centauri with a view to measuring its distance by parallax – the star’s large proper motion suggesting a small distance.
Henderson returned to Edinburgh with his data to find major changes at Calton Hill Observatory – with instruments installed but the Astronomical Institution bankrupt. However, with the backing of Brisbane and others in 1834 he became Regius Professor and the 1st Astronomer Royal for Scotland. In his ten-year tenure he and his assistant Alexander Wallace made some 60,000 observations and published the first 5 volumes of Edinburgh Observations, Meantime Henderson continued cautious reduction of his Cape observations and eventually deduced the parallax of Alpha Centauri, announcing it to the Royal Astronomical Society in January 1839. He was thus one of the first in the world to prove clearly the vast cosmic distances even to nearby stars. However, because of his caution over his data he was not quite the first to publish his results, W. Bessel announcing parallax for 61 Cygni 2 months earlier while Struve obtained a distance for Vega around the same time.
In November 1836 Henderson married Janet Mary, eldest daughter of instrument maker Alexander Adie, but she died in December 1842, just weeks after the birth of their only child Janet Mary Jane. This shock, and a heart condition made worse by the daily climb up Calton Hill, surely contributed to Henderson’s early death (age 46) at his home in 1 Hillside Crescent, on 23 November 1844. He is buried in Greyfriars churchyard and Calton Hill Observatory bears a commemorative inscription.
David Gavine & John C Brown
Lewis Fry Richardson (1881 - 1953)
Location: Eskdalemuir Observatory, Dumfries and Galloway
Unveiled by Paul Hardaker, IOP and Rob Varley, Met Office on 1 August 2013
On 1 August 1913, Lewis Fry Richardson took up the post of Superintendent. He was the physicist, mathematician and meteorologist, who in the years following his appointment, pioneered mathematical methods for weather prediction laying the foundation for modern computerised weather forecasting.
Eskdalemuir is the most remote and climatologically extreme manned Met Office on mainland Britain. Met Office staff monitor the weather and climate as well as a variety of BGS instruments, including seismic and geomagnetic, on behalf of the BGS..
Charles Thomson Rees (C T R) Wilson, CH, Nobel Laureate (1869–1959)
Location: Crosshouse Farm on a specially-built cairn at Flotterstone in the Pentland Hills, south of Edinburgh, a short distance from his birthplace.
Unveiled: 10 April 1996 jointly by Dr Lesley Glasser (Chairman of the Institute's Scottish Branch), and a Vice-President of the Royal Meteorological Society
As Wilson was a Scottish scientist born in the nineteenth century, he had to have "Thomson" in his name. For variety, however, he chose to use it as a middle name. Although born in Scotland, he moved to Manchester when he was four years old. His immediate family was not well off, and his education was paid for by his businessman step-brother, William, based in Calcutta. After starting off as a medical student, he changed to physics, following a BSc at Owens College, Manchester, with a period at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. In order to support his mother after the death of his Calcutta step-brother in 1892, he took a teaching job at Bradford Grammar School, but after a short while, he returned to Cambridge, where he managed to support himself by being a demonstrator for medical students. It was at this time that Rutherford and his contemporaries started research in the department, and Wilson often took part in their discussions. He was awarded the Clerk Maxwell scholarship (less than twenty years after Maxwell had died) for three years, then went on to hold posts as demonstrator, lecturer, and finally Jacksonian professor of natural philosophy. Many honours were bestowed upon him, including FRS in 1900 and a Nobel prize shared with A. H. Compton in 1927, for their work on high-energy photon scattering.
Wilson's blue plaque is on a cairn in the hills because he was profoundly influenced by the beauty and truth of Nature. He spent much of his life walking and climbing in Scotland, and used to spend time on Ben Nevis, observing natural phenomena such as coronas, and electric storms. His invention of the cloud chamber, an invaluable piece of apparatus in the physicist's armoury, was inspired by his wish to emulate the stunning cloud formations that he witnessed whilst on the mountains; and his research into atmospheric electricity was stirred by experiencing his hair standing on end when he was once caught in a storm. This gave him a glimpse of the magnitude of the forces and fields he was investigating. His work on the conductivity of air later inspired Victor Hess, who subsequently postulated the existence of "cosmic radiation".
William Thomson, Baron Kelvin of Largs (1824–1907)
Location: 11 Professors' Square, University of Glasgow
Born in Belfast in 1824, William Thomson was the youngest (aged 10) and later the oldest (aged 75) student in the history of the University of Glasgow. In between he was for 53 years Professor of Natural Philosophy. He refused the Cavendish chair three times, made a fortune, became Baron Kelvin of Largs in 1892, and was the dominant scientific figure of his time. He and is buried in Westminster Abbey next to Isaac Newton. A nearby window pays tribute to him as “Engineer, Natural Philosopher.”
Yet today his achievements are unheralded and he is remembered mainly for his reactionary approach to the new physics of the last decade of his life.
To appreciate Kelvin’s achievements, we must take ourselves back to 1841 when, at the age of 16, he published his first paper. This rescued a neglected work by Fourier, and showed that the instability of Fourier series close to sharp boundaries does not prevent their use to study the flow of heat. Thus the physics of continuous media was born. Kelvin took to heart Fourier’s message that one can describe in mathematics the behaviour of heat without knowing what heat is. Its relation to energy was as yet unclear and incompatible theories of ‘caloric’, to use the then current name, were in circulation. Kelvin first introduced the word ‘thermodynamics’ in 1848.
His creativity was by then reaching an astounding peak. 1849 saw papers by him on hydrodynamics, electricity, the heating and cooling of buildings by circulating air as well as the second law of thermodynamics. In 1850 he wrote on steam engines, geometry, electrolysis, the magnetic properties of crystals and regelation and produced a landmark paper on magnetism. This developed the whole field from two contrasting starting points, magnetic poles and current loops, introducing the vector fields B and H. He recast physics in terms of energy, being the first to write down the stored energies in an inductor and a capacitor, ½LI2 and ½CV2. Amongst the terms he introduced new into physics are: electrical capacity, energy, kinetic energy, absolute temperature, simple harmonic motion, magnetic permeability, magnetic susceptibility, stress over strain, bulk modulus, circulation, vorticity and vortex-sheet.
Between 1858 and 1866 he laid the first transatlantic telegraph cable, an epic undertaking involving huge practical difficulties and a House of Lords enquiry. By 1866 the largest ship in the world (the ‘Great Eastern’) was able to carry the weight of cable needed. He also invented the inkjet printer (the ‘siphon recorder’) as the receiving and recording mechanism requiring the least signal power. (The only moving part is the ink.) The achievement of the transatlantic cable shrank the world more than anything before or since. It has the same logical structure as email – digitally encoded, packet switched, and seeking the least crowded route – and started the globalisation of information. Never again could a battle be fought, as in New Orleans in 1815, weeks after the peace treaty had been signed but before either General had been informed.
It earned Kelvin his knighthood and set him on a path to fame and wealth. Perhaps his most famous invention was the compass for iron ships, overcoming the ship’s permanent magnetism and the additional magnetism induced in the hull by the earth’s field. He worked over twenty years to refine the accuracy of units of electrical measurement, defining the ampere, volt, ohm etc as we know them today. He pioneered electric light: in 1881 his Glasgow home at no 11, Professors Square, became the first house in the world to be fully lit by electric lamps. He introduced undergraduate laboratories: previously students were normally just spectators at lecture demonstrations. Students flocked to work with him: Phillips came from Eindhoven to learn about electric light and students from Japan matched the flow of Glasgow academics the other way.
Kelvin believed passionately in the importance of being quantitative, saying “to measure is to know,” and “if you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.” He was the first to calculate the ages of the earth and of the sun, by considering all known energy sources for the sun and how long the earth’s mountains could survive erosion. Knowing about neither radioactivity in the earth’s core nor nuclear fusion which powers the sun, his results were huge underestimates, causing uproar amongst evolutionists. His approach was both new and correct - but crucially incomplete.
Nevertheless he adamantly asserted that he had the whole picture. Contrast his earlier attitude: “when you are face to face with a difficulty, you are up against a discovery.” He had led the development of physics for over fifty years but was unable to enter the promised land of twentieth-century discoveries. He could not grasp the importance of X-rays or radioactivity. Yet by then he regarded himself as a failure because he could describe but not explain such things as the relation of electricity to matter and the periodic table of the elements.
But his boundless energy had led to 661 scientific papers and 75 patents. Asked to pick one highlight, scientists might choose the absolute scale of temperature: members of the public might opt for the Atlantic telegraph cable.. “His work lives and will continue to live. To him it has been given to make history which will live so long as intelligent man survives on earth. As the years roll on our indebtedness to him increases.” (Russell, 1912).
Professor Sir George Paget Thomson, FRS, Nobel Laureate (1892–1975)
Location: Marischal College, Aberdeen City Centre
Unveiled by Professor Brian Cox, OBE, on 6 September 2012 at Marischal College Quadrangle adjacent to the site of the Natural Philosophy laboratories where Thomson carried out his Nobel-prize winning work. The ceremony was chaired by Dr Kenneth Skeldon, MBE, of the University of Aberdeen. The City Council’s Chief Executive Valerie Watts and the University’s Dr Charles Wang each delivered a brief address on the rich heritage of Marischal College and the pioneering work undertaken there by Thomson.
Thomson worked at Marischal College, University of Aberdeen, in the 1920s - at a time when the new ideas of quantum mechanics were transforming the world of physics. In Thomson’s day it seemed clear that matter, physical objects, were made of particles. On the other hand, radiation, light, was made up of waves.
Indeed - it was George Thomson’s father - J J Thomson - who had himself discovered the electron in 1897 - while James Clerk Maxwell - who had also worked at Marischal College for some time - had predicted the wave properties of light back in 1865.
As waves, light from the skies diffract around the molecules in the atmosphere. Astronomers are familiar with the diffractions of star light, but we have all seen the natural beauty of light rings around the setting sun or full moon at night. In North-East Scotland, this halo of Mie-scattered light around the moon is known as the “gaa”.
Robert Brown, whose observation of the seemingly random motion of pollens in liquid, had been as student at Marischal College. His experiments in the 19th century supported the idea of atoms being the building blocks of matter.
So at the time that 20th century physics got going, it seemed clear that matter was made of particles and light comprised of waves. Particles and waves were different, and produced different effects - at least that’s what people thought.
But the new quantum theory was suggesting some interesting and challenging ideas. Quantum theory was suggesting that matter - particles - like electrons - could also behave as if they were waves. It was radical - even revolutionary - but quantum theory depended on it.
What Thomson did was to verify - experimentally - that this new radical idea was real. He did this by passing electrons through a thin foil towards a screen. As the electrons indeed diffracted around the atoms in the foil, they produced the same ring-shaped patterns of interference as light could in solar or lunar diffractions. It was an elegant - in some ways simple - experiment - but it was pivotal in validating quantum theory at a crucial time.
Thomson’s experiments had to be very carefully designed, and it is fitting to acknowledge a local Aberdonian - Thomson’s chief technician Charles Fraser - who Thomson himself acknowledged as being key to the success of his work. The plaque reflects the input not just of Thomson but of Fraser too.
This plaque is only the third Institute of Physics blue plaque in Scotland, highlighting the impact of Thomson’s work. It will add to the heritage of research and innovation that Scotland should be proud of, and will inspire physicists and scientists for generations to come.