George Stokes, Irish physicist and mathematician

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | August 13, 2018 0

George Stokes  was born on this day in Sligo in 1819. The Irish physicist and mathematician was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University from 1849 until his death in 1903. 

George Gabriel Stokes is one of three great mathematicians associated with Ireland in the 19th century. If Boole translated classical logic into algebra, while Rowan Hamilton used metaphysics as an inspiration for mathematics, Stokes took a third path. His mathematics was inspired by real life problems. As Lord Kelvin wrote in Stokes’ obituary,

“In pure mathematics he was recognised as a fruitful worker by the whole scientific world. But with Stokes, mathematics was the servant and assistant, not the master. His guiding star was natural philosophy. Sound, light, radiant heat, chemistry, were his fields of labour”

He was the youngest of eight children born to the rector of Skreen, Co. Sligo, Gabriel Stokes (1762 – 1834) and Elizabeth Haughton the daughter of John Haugton the rector of Kilrea County Londonderry. The family lineage on the Stokes side includes various rectors mathematicians and physicians including Gabriel Stokes a renowned Irish engineer born in 1680 who authored a treatise on hydrostatics.

George was taught Latin grammar by his father at an early age and then went to school in Dublin for three years. It was here that his talent for mathematics was first noticed. It was during George’s three years in Dublin that his father died and this had a major effect on him. George Stokes was first formally educated at thirteen in Dublin and was sent to England for further schooling two years later. There he studied at Bristol College and according to one of his obituary writers and colleagues John William Strutt Rayleigh (Lord Rayleigh) he was deeply influenced by the mathematics master at the college Francis Newman brother to Cardinal Newman. At Bristol Stokes studied a curriculum that included pure mathematics,  Newton’s Principia, hydrostatics optics and astronomy all topics that Stokes would devote his career to later in life.

by George William De Saulles, bronze medallion, 1899

Stokes matriculated at Pembroke College Cambridge in 1837 and never left.  At Cambridge he not only immersed himself in the typical curriculum of the day which focused on pure mathematics Newtonian gravitational theory and the new undulatory theory of light but Stokes’ contemporary biographer David B. Wilson also claims he was introduced to the theological works of William Paley whose books Evidences of Christianity and Moral Philosophy, imbued as they are with arguments from Design’s later appear as themes in Stokes’  Gifford Lectures. Stokes was the oldest of the trio of natural philosophers, James Clerk Maxwell and Lord Kelvin being the other two, who especially contributed to the fame of the Cambridge school of mathematical physics in the middle of the 19th century. Stokes’s original work began about 1840, and from that date onwards the great extent of his output was only less remarkable than the brilliance of its quality. The Royal Society’s catalogue of scientific papers gives the titles of over a hundred memoirs by him published down to 1883. Some of these are only brief notes, others are short controversial or corrective statements, but many are long and elaborate treatises.

From then on his life became a hectic mélange of researching and publishing. Various colleagues later wrote there was almost no topic in physics which Stokes did not meddle with publish on or lecture in throughout his lifetime the sole exception being electricity. In particular Stokes focused on optics friction in fluids fluorescence (a phenomena he named and explained as the product of light whose wavelength had changed as a result of the substance it had been refracted from) planetary orbits and the mysterious luminiferous ether as Stokes called it. Stokes spent a great deal of his life researching the nature of this ether which he ultimately concluded was analogous to a jelly-like substance pervading the entire universe. Like jelly it was solid enough to transmit light rays through it (since the theory was that light rays could not travel in a vacuum) yet it was fluid enough to allow the planets to orbit through it. By the middle of the century Stokes was a widely demanded lecturer.

Throughout his career, Stokes emphasized the importance of experimentation and problem solving, rather than focusing solely on pure mathematics. His practical approach served him well and Stokes made important advances in several fields, most notably hydrodynamics and optics As part of his experimental drive Stokes helped to set up the Cavendish laboratory in the mid 1880s. The lab aimed at directing more of Cambridge’s bright young minds to experimental issues in physics rather than solely pure mathematics. Stokes declined to take up leadership of the new laboratory telling his friends he was too old to take on new experimental projects. As a result the laboratory started in 1884 was first run by J. J. Thomson (who went on to develop a theory of atomic structure with Ernest Rutherford).

The Navier-Stokes equations are central to Fluid Dynamics. He coined the term fluorescence, Stokes’ law for the drag on micro-particles, and Stokes flows in microchannels. He also investigated wave and diffraction theories of light, concepts which we currently use in optical measurements of temperature, strain and mass diffusion. Finally, he made critical contributions to the understanding of elasticity and wave motion in solids.

Stokes was involved in several investigations into railway accidents, especially the Dee bridge disaster in May 1847, and he served as a member of the subsequent Royal Commission into the use of cast iron in railway structures. He contributed to the calculation of the forces exerted by moving engines on bridges. The bridge failed because a cast iron beam was used to support the loads of passing trains. Cast iron is brittle in tension or bending, and many other similar bridges had to be demolished or reinforced. He appeared as an expert witness at the Tay Bridge disaster, where he gave evidence about the effects of wind loads on the bridge. The centre section of the bridge (known as the High Girders) was completely destroyed during a storm on 28 December 1879, while an express train was in the section, and everyone aboard died (more than 75 victims). The Board of Inquiry listened to many expert witnesses, and concluded that the bridge was “badly designed, badly built and badly maintained”. As a result of his evidence, he was appointed a member of the subsequent Royal Commission into the effect of wind pressure on structures. The effects of high winds on large structures had been neglected at that time, and the commission conducted a series of measurements across Britain to gain an appreciation of wind speeds during storms, and the pressures they exerted on exposed surfaces.

His work was so well respected that he won various honours down the years. For example, he was awarded the Rumford Medal in 1852 by the Royal Society of London for his recent discoveries in physics. He was also awarded the Copley Medal, which is the highest award granted by the Royal Society. The winner of this award was presented with a silver medal and £5,000. Stokes was very passionate about his work and was a great inspiration to many young scientists. He would offer all kinds of help and assistance to those that needed it up until his death in 1903.

Stokes married on 4 July 1857 at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, Mary Susanna Robinson, daughter of the Rev Thomas Romney Robinson, astronomer of Armagh Observatory. They had five children, two of whom died in childhood and one of whom a physician died from suicide at thirty. Stokes’s final years were spent living with his daughter Isabella Lucy who wrote a laudatory memoir of her father following his death. Stokes died on 1 February 1903 and was buried four days later in Mill Road cemetery Cambridge.

There is a memorial to him in St Andrew’s Church Malahide, put up by his sister Elizabeth Stokes, who lived there. It describes him as “seeking truth above all things”. In 1995 a monument dedicated to him was established in Skreen, Co. Sligo. The Stokes Institute at University College Limerick and the Stokes Building at Dublin City University are named after this famous and influential Irish Scientist. 

Sir George Gabriel Stokes, 1st Baronet, PRS (13 August 1819 – 1 February 1903), Irish physicist, theologian, politician and mathematician

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