Person: Airy, George Biddell
George Airy was Lucasian professor at Cambridge and Astronomer Royal. He made many major contributions to mathematics and astronomy.
Mathematical Profile (Excerpt):
- George attended Byatt Walker's school in Colchester and at the age of ten he took first place at the end of his primary school career.
- Arthur Biddell was a man of learning who had a fine library containing books on chemistry, optics and mechanics which Airy avidly studied, and in addition he had many leading scientists as his friends.
- Their influence on the young Airy was marked and was a major factor in his seeking an academic career.
- Airy entered Trinity College, Cambridge in 1819 as a sizar, meaning that he paid a reduced fee but essentially worked as a servant to make good the fee reduction.
- To supplement his income Airy took private pupils and this, of course, gave him less time for his own studies.
- Woodhouse, who had left the Lucasian chair in 1822 to become Plumian Professor of Astronomy, was one of Airy's examiners for the Smith's prize, the other being Thomas Turton who had succeeded Woodhouse to the Lucasian chair.
- In the following year Airy was awarded a fellowship at Trinity College and began his academic career.
- We should comment on why Airy did so well in the Tripos examinations, being far ahead of the next best student.
- At this Airy proved exceptionally good, partly because of his excellent memory, but also because of his remarkable organisational abilities.
- In 1824 Airy met Richarda Smith while on a walking holiday.
- This made Airy determined to obtain a position with the financial status which would allow him to marry.
- It is rather surprising that the Lucasian Professor only received £99 per year while Airy was already receiving £150 as an assistant tutor.
- Airy wondered whether he could afford to compete for the chair when he was advised in 1826 that Turton was leaving, but Peacock persuaded him that the status was more important than the money.
- Airy triumphed and a rivalry with Babbage which was to last for many years began.
- In addition to the Lucasian Chair, Airy was appointed a member of the Board of Longitude which gave him another £100 per year provided he attended four meetings.
- Airy was an examiner for the Smith's Prize and gave lectures while holding the Lucasian Chair.
- It was an eye defect which Airy suffered from himself and he had been the first to design glasses to correct it.
- In 1828 Peacock informed Airy that Woodhouse, the Plumian Professor of Astronomy, had not long to live and advised him to seek this chair.
- Airy was appointed Plumian Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge and Director of the Cambridge Observatory.
- Airy wrote the text On the Algebraic and Numerical Theory of Errors of Observations and the Combinations of Observations.
- This text was one of eleven books which Airy published, some of the others being Trigonometry (1825), Gravitation (1834), and Partial differential equations (1866).
- Airy's delay, in 1845, of searching for Neptune at the location suggested by Adams prevented Adams obtaining full credit for his work although in many ways he has been unfairly criticised over this episode.
- Airy did, however, make many major contributions to mathematics and astronomy.
- Airy was made chairman of the Commission set up to construct Standard Weights and Measures in 1834.
- The Royal Astronomical Society elected Airy to be their President in 1845.
- Then, in 1851, Airy was elected President of the British Association, and in 1871 he was elected President of the Royal Society of London holding the post for two years.
- Outside his professional scientific interests, Airy was a man of broad tastes.
- An illustration of Airy's personality is shown from his long running disagreements with Babbage.
- In all these disputes Airy came out the winner, but it is far from clear that he took the "right" side in the arguments.
- We should end with a few words on Airy's importance as a scientist.
- However, others have a higher opinion of Airy's achievements.
Born 27 July 1801, Alnwick, Northumberland, England. Died 2 January 1892, Greenwich, England.
View full biography at MacTutor
Tags relevant for this person:
Astronomy, Geography, Origin England, Physics
Adapted from other CC BY-SA 4.0 Sources:
- O’Connor, John J; Robertson, Edmund F: MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive