Ethereal Physics

3D front cover of My Philosophy by Oliver LodgeMy mathematical incompetence has been remarked upon before; and I cannot look back upon the nightmare that was my GCE physics exam without feeling sick – in fact, the only thing that stopped me from pretending a sudden illness when I had read the paper was the certainty that I would be forced to retake (it was that sort of school), and that therefore I would have to attend another term of physics lessons. (Why, you may reasonably ask, was I doing a subject in which I had no interest, and at which I was hopeless? Well, I wanted to do Greek, and the only way that it could be crow-barred into the timetable was against chemistry, so that left me with no choice but to do physics, as we had to do at least two sciences.) In my defence with regard to both maths and physics, the teachers were appalling – one of my best friends, who went on to read mechanical engineering, told me much later that when she first went to university the scales fell from her eyes and she realised quite how bad they both had been; this cheered me up a bit, because I had always assumed that it was my stupidity that was the problem.

Given this background, I didn’t think that the life and works of the physicist Sir Oliver Lodge – enthusiastically recommended to us – would be quite my cup of tea. I can’t pronounce on the many works we have reissued, but the life, as revealed in his autobiography, Past Years, is quite inspirational, though occasionally a bit difficult to follow, not merely because of the physics but also because he darts about chronologically.

Oliver Lodge was born in 1851. (He mentions that he didn’t of course remember the Great Exhibition, but was taken to the Crystal Palace after it was removed to Sydenham, ‘and I had two strawberry ices there better than any I have had since’, and was also very impressed by the dinosaurs in the gardens.) His father was the 23rd of 25 children (two wives were involved), and Lodge himself was the eldest of eight sons and one daughter; and he had six sons and six daughters ‘that reached maturity’ – a rather chilling phrase. His father had built up a business in the Potteries, supplying china clay and other materials to the industry, and assumed that his sons, especially the oldest, would follow him into the business. But in fact two more of the Lodge boys and the girl became outstanding academics: Richard and Eleanor became historians, and Alfred a mathematician.

What made Lodge’s scientific career unusual (apart of course from his brilliance) is that he came to it late, and after an education which could most kindly be described as inadequate. Through family connections he attended a boarding school where Latin (and later Greek) were the only items of any importance on the curriculum, and where the grammar was all that mattered: literature was read and translated for its grammatical structure, not its content, and Euclid (which Lodge found refreshingly easy by comparison with Homer and Horace) was studied for the language and not for the maths. Most extraordinarily (to modern ways of thinking) the textbook given to the eight-year-old Oliver for studying Latin was also in Latin: ‘…I was told to learn the first page. I hadn’t the least idea what it was about. There was a lot of small print, and then some bigger print, with N.G.D.A.V.A. in a column, with variations of the word musa after them…. I sat over it all morning, and gradually dissolved into tears…’. (This perhaps puts into context the extraordinary popularity of Kennedy, Arnold and Bradley.)

Even worse was the casual use of the cane not to punish only, but to hammer home learning, and even worse than that was the relentless, savage bullying by the other boys: ‘I think, perhaps, the worst permanent consequence of life under those conditions is the obliteration of any spontaneity of joy in life, such as is natural to most children of eight. …I learnt to suppress my feelings, until for the most part they became extinct.’

But this apparently pointless school drudgery had some uses: it trained the memory, and gave insights into scientific nomenclature, and Lodge is touching about what he sees as his own limitations – in later life he knew many classical scholars, including his close friend and fellow psychical researcher F.W.H. Myers, and clearly revered the insights which a ‘classical education’ had given to them. What saved him was partly leaving this education at the age of fourteen to work as his father’s assistant, and partly the influence of his mother’s sister Anne, who had been picked out of the Clergy Orphans’ School by Queen Adelaide, then recently widowed, to become a member of the court as her Woman of the Bedchamber. A bequest from the Queen Dowager left her financially independent; she was well educated and was keenly interested in the natural sciences. She first introduced her nephew to astronomy, and invited him as a teenager to stay with her in London, where through her he began to attend lectures, and first encountered Physics. It was love at first lecture, and the sensation he describes of ‘walking through the streets of London back to Fitzroy Street as if on air’ clearly never left him.

Energy and enthusiasm (happily not extinct after all) carried him through relentless hours, weeks, years of study while continuing to work for his father, until he obtained demonstrating and lecturing jobs in London which gave him financial independence. (There is an interesting account of lecturing to the young ladies of Bedford College with the obligatory chaperone knitting away in the background.) He later became a founding professor in the new university of Liverpool (along with A.C. Bradley), and first Principal of the University of Birmingham.

As a scientist, Lodge was very much at the applied, practical end of the spectrum. He loved creating experiments, reminding his readers how difficult this was when ‘ordinary’ equipment like the flexible linking for glass tubes couldn’t be bought but had to be contrived. He described Bell’s telephone as ‘the fundamental invention of the latter half of the nineteenth century’, and was the first person in Britain to demonstrate Edison’s phonograph. His own contributions to wireless telegraphy and other consequences of the understanding of electromagnetism, such as lightning conductors, also reveal this practical side: to a modern way of thinking (again) it seems odd therefore that so much of his life and thought were taken up with psychical research.

He describes in some detail the mental process that led from his being a complete sceptic, to his first meeting with Edmund Gurney, to his conviction that the mind is separate from the body and can survive without it after bodily death, giving examples of the mediums he had seen in action, and the scientifically based precautions used by the Society for Psychical Research to prevent fraud. He firmly believes that there is a biological explanation for the phenomena he observes in ‘sittings’, and that it is only a matter of time before science will provide such an explanation. On the other hand, he also believes that mediums revealed as frauds, such as the notorious Eusapia Palladino, did have a mediumistic skill, and employed tricks only when their normal powers were failing, so as not to disappoint their audience. And like Conan Doyle (and thousands of others), he lost a  son  in the First World War…

Read the book to learn much more about a fascinating life, from hearing Dickens perform ‘Dr Marigold’ and the trial scene from Pickwick, to choosing the works of Ruskin, ‘bound in blue calf’, as a prize from the Society of Telegraph Engineers. Lodge later corresponded with the great man, whose writing on social theory he revered (though was able to put him right on a matter pertaining to cloud formation), and visited him during his years of seclusion at Brantwood. Lodge clearly had a long, happy and amazingly productive life (he and his wife celebrated their golden wedding at Wynd’s Point near Malvern, the former home of Jenny Lind). The book is all the more touching for a long passage in which he describes the flaw (as he sees it) in his character which ‘has been the cause of my not clinching many subjects, not following up the path on which I had set my feet’. We normal under-achievers can only gape in astonishment at his self-deprecation.


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2 Responses to Ethereal Physics

  1. Pingback: Thou Shalt Commit Adultery | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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