Sunday, July 12, 2015

I once met A. S. Eddington

Found in the papers of L.R. Reeve (see A.J. Balfour for background on him) this piece on the British astronomer, physicist, and mathematician Sir  Arthur Eddington (1882 - 1944.) He did his greatest work in astrophysics and also wrote books on philosophy and popular science. L.R. Reeve actually met him and gives an amusing account of the slightness of this encounter but has good information on Eddington's appearance and his lecturing style. He ends with quite a good joke, relatively speaking…Some may remember that David Tennant played him in the BBC/HBO film Einstein and Eddington (2008.)


For several years I expressed my homage to Semprini, the pianist of genius; then when I heard him declare on the radio that if he were on a desert island his choice of a book would be The Nature of the Physical World by Sir Arthur Eddington, O.M., F.R.S., my obeisance was beyond all description, for I look upon Eddington as the greatest astronomer of my era.
At times, many years ago, I lay on my groundsheet bed in the desert gazed upwards with wonder at the moon and stars in the cloudless sky which appeared larger and brighter than in England, astounded at the intellects of men who interpreted the awesome constellation and could tell us that we were looking at stars which took many light years to reach our vision. In those days I never heard of Eddington,
nor did I know him later when I was leader of about 150 teachers who assembled outside the Royal Observatory for a conducted tour through territory preciously unknown to most of us, and where Sir Arthur had been chief assistant to the Astronomer Royal, Sir Frank Dyson. On that eventful day

we were assembled in small groups and then led by men who had retained their enthusiasm for an important vocation. I still remember the third largest telescope on earth, the chronometer with compensatory action invented by a Yorkshireman, which enabled mariners to pin-point their position on the restless ocean; a fine portrait of Charles II, who granted the Charter; the renowned ball on the Dome which lowered precisely at noon (or 13 hours), enabled the ships on the sharp bend of the river at Greenwich to see the signal and adjust their instruments. Further, we saw the standard length of a yard and a foot made of brass embedded in a wall, besides many relics of apparatus used in ships of earlier days. Our trip to Greenwich was a decided success.
Fifty years ago many of us persisted in a little joke concerning our meeting with a celebrity. "He spoke to me. He asked me to pass him the salt." Such was our feeble humour for a year or so; and such was my experience with Sir Arthur during a week of the World Congress of Philosophy at Oxford. "Will you pass me the salt, please," requested my eminent neighbour on the right when at breakfast in the refectory at New College. "Certainly," I responded. Our short conversation would have been extended had I known of his connection with Trinity College, Cambridge, and his responsible office at the Observatory in the university. I couldn't have resisted telling him some facts about his old college which he didn't know, and he could have given me some information I was seeking. I could, for instance, have informed him of certain undergraduates who preceded him and became famous in later life. Yes, and I could have told him of a relative whose whole career was spent at the Observatory, but at that time I was unaware of my eminent neighbour's identity.
Later in the week when he stood on the platform in the Great Hall and gave us a masterly lecture on Relativity I was under no delusion that he was an ordinary member of the human race. Today, therefore, I can agree with a writer who has declared that Eddington was extraordinarily gifted in popular exposition. I can add to that declaration the fact that not only was he an unusually clever exponent of a difficult subject, he was an extraordinarily attractive-looking man: the antithesis of one’s view of a professor. He might have been a smart Harley Street physician whose presence was a tonic to any patient.
I must turn back a bit to Sir Arthur’s early days. He was born at Kendal: a fact that gives me one point in his favour, for I still hold that to be brought up in a good locality is an advantage to any man. A bad environment means an added disadvantage to any man. A bad environment means an added disadvantage to be overcome on the road to material and personal success. After his boyhood he studied at Owen’s College, Manchester: a college (founded by John Owens in 1846 with a gift of £100,000) which has persistently grown in stature and can claim distinguished men who have been on its staff, such as Professors Alexander and T. H. Pear. Dr Marie Stopes was also an eminent lecturer in science. It seems to me that Manchester’s national influence grows year by year.
From a young, robust university Eddington went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was senior wrangler and later elected to a fellowship of his college. Except to state that his great distinction has been accepted and acknowledged by many awards from scientific societies abroad and the membership of similar bodies in other lands, it is enough to refer to his British O.M., his F.R.S., and to prizes awarded by representative groups of British scientists, without mentioning his recognitions in detail, but one is bound to say a word about his numerous standard publications.
They are universally known in the highest circles of intellectual societies, and are usually accepted in their entirety. Such publications as The Mathematical Theory of Relativity, Space, Time and Gravitation and The Nature of the Physical World are the result of years of research and abstract thought. They therefore receive the close analysis of the greatest minds abroad and increase the deference of readers; and it could be that his obvious ascendancy in the world of science is due largely to his intellectual integrity, and the fact that he analysed Boss's catalogue of 6,188 stars. Furthermore, he grasped the theory of Relativity in its early stages and explained the phenomenon very cleverly in lectures and publications.
The one lecture I have previously boosted couldn't have been bettered by anyone, and I am sure some of my friends are too polite to inform me that I have already told them of the time when someone complimented Eddington on being one of two men who understood the theory of Relativity. "Who is the other one?" asked Sir Arthur Eddington.


  1. someone complimented Eddington on being one of two men who understood the theory of Relativity. "Who is the other one?" asked Sir Arthur Eddington. "

    I can't remember where - Russell, perhaps? - but there was a philosopher who repeated a similar story and added that Eddington obviously wasn't a logician. If he was a logician he'd know the man who congratulated him on understanding the theory must understand the theory himself and be the other one.

  2. Thanks Roger - it is also possible that the questioner was winding Eddington up or as they say now 'having a laugh'...