Monday, 9 June 2014

Celebrating Croll: Who was James Croll?

James Croll is one of those remarkable Victorian characters who made a fundamental contribution to our current understanding of science, but who is now all but forgotten except in specialist circles.

James Croll

Coming from a modest rural background near Perth, Croll was largely self-taught through reading, his enthusiasm for learning sparked by The Penny Magazine of The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.

For much of his life he struggled with illness, and he held a succession of different jobs, from millwright to shopkeeper to insurance salesman. It was in 1859, when he became a janitor at the Anderson College in Glasgow and gained access to its extensive library, that he became actively involved in pushing the boundaries of glaciology.

His first paper on glacial epochs was published in 1864, and in 1875 he published the landmark Climate and Time, the distillation of his theory of ice ages and Earth’s orbit. In all, he wrote dozens of scientific papers, amongst other things explaining global oceanic circulation, calculating the age of the sun, developing a theory of evolution, and remarkably presciently predicting the thickness of the unexplored Antarctic Ice Sheet.

“I remember well that, before I could make headway in physical astronomy,… I had to go back and study the laws of motion and fundamental principles of mechanics. In like manner I studied pneumatics, hydrostatics, light, heat, electricity and magnetism. I obtained assistance from no-one. In fact there were none of my acquaintances who knew anything whatever about these subjects.” - James Croll

The Celebrating Croll appeal launched last week. The RSGS is aiming to rejuvenate the outdoor space and the interpretation panels in our visitor and education centre in the Fair Maid's House., to give visitors more to see, maximise the space available to visiting groups, and to celebrate the legacy of James Croll.