Sir George Howard Darwin: Scientific Papers, Volume 5

George Howard Darwin was the fifth child of Charles and Emma Darwin, though only the third to survive to adulthood. Like his brothers Francis and Horace, George had a distinguished scientific career, and, among many other honors, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. As President of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, George Darwin presided over the fifth International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) just a few months before his death.

George Darwin’s scientific works are collected in five volumes. The fifth volume, completed at Distributed Proofreaders in March 2011, contains papers, lectures, addresses, and posthumous reminiscences, and will be of interest to historically- and scientifically-minded readers. The book is the first work by George Darwin to appear at Project Gutenberg.

The essay of widest general appeal is the “Memoir of Sir George Darwin”, written by his brother, Sir Francis Darwin, with contributions from scientists and other family friends. This memoir paints a vivid, intimate portrait of the Darwins’ family life, and the environs of their home in Down, a country town 20 miles from London. We watch as George grows from a touchingly precocious boy into a talented student of mathematics at Cambridge, and finally into a mature scientist, renowned astronomer, and energetic administrator of academic societies. Ultimately, Sir Francis’s memoir evokes bittersweet pangs of loss: One feels that a beloved and humane Victorian scientist, whom one had known since his childhood in the 1850s, had recently died at the untimely age of 67. With a century’s retrospect, Sir George’s passing in late 1912 signaled the close of the era of British naturalism exemplified by the Darwin sons and their illustrious father Charles.

Darwin’s “Inaugural Lecture”, delivered at Cambridge in 1883 upon his election to the Plumian Professorship, contains advice to students that is still relevant in our era of standardized testing, college rankings, and performance-based funding of school districts. His 1912 address to the ICM, delivered at the end of his career, gives a snapshot of mathematics in the early 20th Century, and movingly expresses Darwin’s scientific gratitude to the great mathematician and physicist Henri Poincaré, who had died just weeks previously.

A chapter by Professor Ernest Brown of Yale University surveys Darwin’s scientific work. Darwin’s lasting contribution is his work on the tides, a deceptively simple problem requiring analysis of the gravitational attractions of elastic bodies. (His famous book “The Tides” describes his fascinating but ultimately futile attempts to build a mechanical measuring device sensitive enough to measure the diurnal deformation of the earth as it rotates in the moon’s gravitational field.)

The present volume also contains two examples of Darwin’s work in mathematical astronomy. The lectures on “Hill’s Lunar Theory” sketch the main physical and mathematical ideas in Hill’s detailed technical account. The article “On Librating Planets” is Darwin’s final published paper. Admittedly technical, the paper gives the reader a glimpse into the laborious manual methods of computation required prior to the advent of electronic computers, yet also exploits modern topological arguments, pioneered by Poincaré, for proving the existence of closed orbits.

Though parts of this volume will appeal mostly to readers with advanced undergraduate training in mathematics or physics, the book also contains material that all readers can enjoy, and, like many ebooks produced at Distributed Proofreaders, forges memorable links with the lives and times of years past.

This review was contributed by DP-volunteer adhere.

One Response to Sir George Howard Darwin: Scientific Papers, Volume 5

  1. LCantoni says:

    Thank you for another great science book post, clearly and appealingly written.

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