This week in science history: England’s enigmatic mathematician is born

Little is known about the early life of George Green, an improbable but undeniable nineteenth century maths genius. Jeff Glorfeld reports.

One of the few images of George Green ever located.
One of the few images of George Green ever located.

George Green was born on July 14, 1793, in the English town of Sneinton, Nottinghamshire, now part of the city of Nottingham, the only son of a prosperous miller and baker. He showed an early aptitude for mathematics and at the age of eight was sent to a local school, where he reportedly excelled but left after one year and went to work for his father.

Fast-forward to 1828. Green, now 35, publishes a paper, An Essay on the Application of Mathematical Analysis to the Theories of Electricity and Magnetism. From this and just a handful of subsequent works, today he is ranked among the greatest mathematicians and physicists the world has known.

According to his biographer, historian Doris Mary Cannell (1913-2000), who has written numerous books and essays about him, “Nothing is known of his intellectual development since he left school 27 years previously. We do know that he worked long and arduous hours at his father's mill and his cousin tells us he found the miller's duties 'irksome'. He was known for spending any free time he had on mathematics.”

Albert Einstein, during a visit to Nottingham in 1930, where he was shown a copy of the 1828 essay, remarked that he believed Green to have been 20 years ahead of his time.

Cannell says physicists today find Green’s papers “seminal” to the study of solid-state physics and elasticity and, since the mid-20th century, his work has been “indispensable” for those working in nuclear physics.

“It was Green who first used the term ‘potential’ in electricity,” she wrote in a 1999 essay titled George Green: An Enigmatic Mathematician.

“It was Green who first enunciated the principle of the conservation of energy. It was he who closely studied the conditions for reflection at an interface, which provided the first convincing explanation of total internal reflection, the basis of fibre optics and thus an important element in telecommunications. Many developments in modem technology, semiconductors and superconductors, geological sounding and seismology, medical electronic scanning, owe a debt to Green.”

The essay’s title was accurate. An article on him published by the University of Nottingham says it is unclear to historians “exactly where he obtained information on current developments in mathematics. Only one person educated in mathematics, John Toplis, is known to have lived in Nottingham at the time. When Green published his essay in 1828, it was sold on a subscription basis to 51 people, most of whom were friends and probably could not understand it.”

The problem, Cannell wrote, is the lack of material concerning Green. “His output was small; 10 papers including the essay, written in the space of 11 years, amounting to fewer than 250 pages of print. There are no manuscripts, no working papers, no diaries, no memorabilia.”

The brilliance of Green’s work was eventually recognised and, with various sponsors, he became an undergraduate at Cambridge in 1833 at the age of 40. After graduating he remained at the university and worked on his own mathematics.

In 1838 and 1839 he had two papers on hydrodynamics, two papers on reflection and refraction of light and two papers on reflection and refraction of sound published by Cambridge Philosophical Society.

Bishop Harvey Goodwin was an undergraduate at Cambridge during these years following Green's graduation. He wrote of Green: “He stood head and shoulders above all his contemporaries inside and outside the university.”

Green fell into poor health and returned to his hometown in 1840, dying a year later. Better known in death than in life, today he has a library and an electromagnetics research institute named after him at the University of Nottingham.

His grave is near Sneinton, but there is a memorial stone commemorating him in Westminster Abbey, near the graves of Isaac Newton and Lord Kelvin.

Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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