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Tyndall, John

Category: Scientist

Caricature of John Tyndall;caricatured as a preacher in the magazine
Vanity Fair, 1872 Caption read "The Scientific Use of the Imagination"

John Tyndall FRS (2 August 1820 – 4 December 1893) was a prominent Irish 19th-century physicist.

His initial scientific fame arose in the 1850s from his study of ‘diamagnetism’. Later he made discoveries in the realms of infrared radiation and the physical properties of air. Tyndall also published more than a dozen science books which brought 19th century experimental physics to a wide audience. From 1853 to 1887 he was professor of physics at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London.

Tyndall was a materialist, totally dismissive of all things spiritual.  He also invested a great deal of energy into the new movement of Science as religion.  But he wrote a paper tucked away at the end of a very weighty tome called Fragments of Science, which runs to two volumes each of about 500 pages, which has especial interest.

In the Preface to the sixth edition Tyndall states that the first volume deals almost exclusively with the laws and phenomenon of matter, whilst the second ‘trenches’ upon questions in which the phenomena of matter interlace with those of the mind.  From this we can see that although he was a ‘physicist’, he recognised the existence of a mind that was not physical and it was this that drove him to write the very last Essay – Science and the Spirits.

His objective, from what one can glean from the text, was to completely discredit mediums and spirituality.  But he did not count on, first of all the interesting nature of the phenomena which occurred at the one séance he decided to attend, and second the intervention of one Patrick Proctor Alexander, who wrote a short but fascinating Essay entitled Spiritualism: A Narrative with a Discussion, in which he provided an Appendix which tears Tyndall’s approach to shreds – and he does this scientifically.

In the observations, we have interleaved Tyndall’s commentary with Alexander’s, as it is a somewhat damning commentary on the ‘scientific method’ Tyndall used.  In fact if one reads Alexander’s commentary, one starts to question whether any of Tyndall’s work can be trusted, as such we shall give a brief account without dwelling too much on his work which may well all have been fabricated.



Tyndall measured the relative infrared absorptive powers of the gases nitrogen, oxygen, water vapour, carbon dioxide, ozone, methane, etc. (year 1859). He concluded that water vapour is the strongest absorber of radiant heat in the atmosphere and is the principal gas controlling air temperature. Absorption by the other gases is ‘relatively small’.

In radiant-heat experiments, he stated that, for a variety of readily vaporisable liquids, molecule for molecule, the vapour form and the liquid form had the same power to absorb radiant heat.  Modern experiments have shown this to be untrue.

Tyndall's three longest tutorials, namely Heat (1863), Sound (1867), and Light (1873), were devoted to laboratory science and they avoided mathematics. In particular, they contain absolutely no infinitesimal calculus. Mathematical modelling using infinitesimal calculus, especially differential equations, was a key component of the understanding of heat, light and sound at the time.

 In the lab he devised a method of obtaining "optically pure" air, i.e. air that has no visible signs of particulate matter, using glycerine lined walls.  [Note that bacteria like glycerine].  Now, in the optically pure air there were no signs of any "germs", i.e. no signs of floating micro-organisms. Tyndall sterilised some meat-broths by simply boiling them, and then compared what happened when he let these meat-broths sit in the optically pure air, and in ordinary air. The broths sitting in the optically pure air remained "sweet" (as he said) to smell and taste after many months of sitting, while the ones in ordinary air started to become putrid after a few days. However, the next year (1876) Tyndall failed to consistently reproduce the result. Some of his supposedly heat-sterilized broths rotted in the optically pure air. From this Tyndall stated he had found viable bacterial spores (endospores) in heat-sterilized broths, whereas the obvious conclusions might have been that the first batch of air had no bacteria and the second batch of air had [or the glycerine].


One of the perhaps more disastrous effects his experiments had were related to atoms and molecules and may have set the physics community back hundreds of years.  Tyndall was an experimenter and laboratory apparatus builder, not an abstract model builder. But in his experiments on radiation and the heat-absorptive power of gases, he had an underlying agenda to understand the physics of molecules. Tyndall said in 1879: "During nine years of labour on the subject of radiation [in the 1860s], heat and light were handled throughout by me, not as ends, but as instruments by the aid of which the mind might perchance lay hold upon the ultimate particles of matter." In other words he assumed from the start that everything was matter, which is very physical but not very scientific.

Besides heat he also saw magnetism and sound propagation as reducible to molecular behaviours. In fact Tyndall stated that invisible molecular behaviours were the ultimate basis of all physical activity. With this mindset, and his experiments, he outlined an account whereby differing types of molecules have differing absorptions of infrared radiation because their molecular structures give them differing oscillating resonances.  All this incidentally was pure invention, kindly put it was an hypothesis, but the reality was that he had little or no observations on which these theories were based.

His promotion of the molecular mindset, has been discussed by one historian under the title "John Tyndall, The Rhetorician of Molecularity".  Rhetoric is defined as “language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect, but which is often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content.”


Not content with muddying the scientific water in the area of radiation and light, Tyndall also studied glaciers, and especially glacier motion. His explanation of glacial flow brought him into dispute with others, particularly James David Forbes. Much of the early painstaking scientific work on glacier motion had been done by Forbes, but Tyndall came up with his own explanation.  Forbes didn't agree with the explanation at all.  Complicating their debate, a disagreement arose publicly over who deserved to get investigator credit for what. Articulate friends of Forbes, as well as Forbes himself, thought that Forbes should get the credit for most of the good science, whereas Tyndall thought the credit should be ‘distributed more widely’.  It is interesting that Tyndall’s intervention has set back research in this area to this very day – “More disappointingly, aspects of glacier motion remained not understood or not proved”. 

It might be added that there were also some doubts cast on whether Tyndall ever did climb the mountains he said he did.  According to the account in Tyndall's book The Glaciers of the Alps (1860), Tyndall in 1858 reached the summit of Monte Rosa solo carrying only a ham sandwich for sustenance. The first ascent of Monte Rosa had taken place only in 1855. He made an unplanned ascent solo on 17 August 1858 after breakfast: "the waiter then provided me with a ham sandwich, and, with my scrip thus frugally furnished, I thought the heights of Monte Rosa might be won...."

An index of 19th century scientific research journals has John Tyndall as the author of more than 147 papers in science research journals, with practically all of them dated between 1850 and 1884, which is an average of more than four papers a year over that 35-year period.

Science as religion


The majority of the progressive and innovative British physicists of Tyndall's generation were ‘orthodox’ on matters of religion, not only seeing the need to maintain a link with religion for moral and ethical reasons – ‘though shalt not hurt’, ‘thou shalt not lie or falsify experiments for monetary gain’ – but also seeing strong links between so called spiritual and physical phenomena.

James Joule, Balfour Stewart, James Clerk Maxwell, George Gabriel Stokes and William Thomson – all names investigating heat or light contemporaneously with Tyndall, believed that religion and science were consistent and harmonious with each other.

Tyndall, however, was a member of a club that sought to strengthen the barrier, or separation, between religion and science.

John Tyndall was an evangelist for the cause of the new religion of Science. He spent a significant amount of his time disseminating ‘science’ – his science -  to the general public. He gave hundreds of public lectures to non-specialist audiences at the Royal Institution in London. When he went on a public lecture tour in the USA in 1872, large crowds of non-scientists paid fees to hear him lecture about the nature of light.

And he made a lot of money from doing it.  Tyndall became a rich man.  Tyndall was born in County Carlow, Ireland. He attended the local schools in County Carlow and learnt technical drawing. He was hired as a draftsman by the Ordnance Survey of Ireland in his late teens in 1839.  Tyndall was actually no scientist at all, but he saw in ‘science’ as a religion, a way to pull himself up by his boot straps and get rich quick.  When he died, his wealth was £22,122. For comparison's sake, the income of a police constable in London was about £80 per year at the time.


It is notable that later in life his money donations went most visibly to the Irish Unionist political cause. He was born in an essentially Catholic area – but was descended from Gloucestershire [non Catholic] emigrants who settled in southeast Ireland around 1670.  Tyndall was essentially a politician, who used his powers of rhetoric to advance a new religion that would oust the old.  Tyndall was violently against Catholicism .  Between 1886 and 1893, he was very active in the debate in England about whether to give the Catholics of Ireland more freedom to go their own way. He opposed the Irish Home Rule Movement and he had ‘ardent’ [fanatical] views about it, which were published in newspapers and pamphlets. For example, in an opinion piece in The Times on 27 December 1890, he wrote that placing the non-Catholic minority under the dominion of "the priestly horde" would be "an unspeakable crime".

The Pope had already spotted the danger of this new religion.  In 1864, the Pope had decreed that:

"The fundamental doctrine of rationalism is the supremacy of the human reason, which, refusing due submission to the divine and eternal reason, proclaims its own independence.... A doctrine of such character is most hurtful both to individuals and to the State.... It follows that it is quite unlawful to demand, to defend, or to grant, unconditional [or promiscuous] freedom of thought, speech, writing, or religion."

What this means is that the ego of man declares itself superior to that of God.  Once man promotes himself to be the new god, as the Pope said, ’it is most hurtful to individuals and state’, as there is no ethical control or moral stricture on what ‘science’ says it cannot or can do. 

And of course today we see the result, vaccines that have ensured that 1 in every 6 American children are brain damaged, climate change which promises mass extinction, thalidomide, DDT, Silent Springs, the death of the Great Barrier  Reef, the loss of a quarter of the world’s species, at least three major and catastrophic nuclear power disasters , the rise and use of chemical weapons, nanoparticles that are causing melanoma at unheard of rates from their use in sun tan lotions, unrestrained genetic engineering, the proliferation of heavy metals and toxins in food and the atmosphere …. The list could go on and on.


Tyndall didn’t much care whether the science was good science or not, which is why his audience was nearly always the non scientist.  All he was interested in was the hate campaign that reigned in Ireland for centuries between Catholics and Protestants.  And it appears that he hated Catholics enough to start the religion of ‘Science’, with as many false doctrines as any perverted religion!

He published more than a dozen science books and most of them were aimed at the general public, not other scientists.  His books were translated into German and French with his main tutorials staying in print in those languages for decades.

As an indicator of his role as the priest of science – the new hierophant for a new religion - here are his honeyed words to the reader at the end of a 200-page tutorial book for a "youthful audience", The Forms of Water (1872):

 "Here, my friend, our labours close. It has been a true pleasure to me to have you at my side so long. In the sweat of our brows we have often reached the heights where our work lay, but you have been steadfast and industrious throughout, using in all possible cases your own muscles instead of relying upon mine. Here and there I have stretched an arm and helped you to a ledge, but the work of climbing has been almost exclusively your own. It is thus that I should like to teach you all things; showing you the way to profitable exertion, but leaving the exertion to you.... Our task seems plain enough, but you and I know how often we have had to wrangle resolutely with the facts to bring out their meaning. The work, however, is now done, and you are master of a fragment of that sure and certain knowledge which is founded on the faithful study of nature.... Here then we part. And should we not meet again, the memory of these days will still unite us. Give me your hand. Good bye."

As James Clerk Maxwell said in 1871, "the doctrines of the science are forcibly impressed on the mind “.

And so it was that if John Tyndall had gone into any séance, he would have so falsified and manipulated the evidence that his findings would have been worthless.



Tyndall did not marry until age 55. His bride, Louisa Hamilton, was the 30-year-old daughter of a member of parliament (Lord Claud Hamilton, M.P.). The marriage was without children.

He retired from the Royal Institution at age 66 having complaints of ill health.  And interestingly it seems that his life of fabricating evidence, gradually pricked his conscience enough to mean he found he could no longer sleep.  The irony is, that trusting in science and the undoubted wisdom of doctors,  Tyndall often took chloral hydrate to treat his insomnia. Chloral hydrate is an evil drug that has caused the addiction and death of many and eventually Tyndall became bedridden.

He died from an overdose of this drug in 1893 at the age of 73.

It is somewhat fascinating to note that Tyndall's wife took possession of his papers and assigned herself supervisor of an official biography of him. All keen initially, on examination of what he had done and said, she started to drag her feet unable to bring herself to print the truth and unable to print a lie.  The biography was still unfinished when she died in 1940 aged 95.

A book eventually appeared in 1945, written by A. S. Eve and C. H. Creasey, whom Louisa Tyndall had ‘authorised’ shortly before her death.

The Libertas decree (year 1888, Pope Leo XIII).
"The divine teaching of the Church brings the sure guidance of shining light. Therefore, there is no reason why true science should feel aggrieved at having to bear the restraint of laws by which, in the judgment of the Church, human teaching has to be controlled."



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