July 03, 2004
James Croll and the ages of ice

Another bit from the Bill Bryson book I've been reading. I've now nearly finished this book. Still excellent.

One of the more charming oddities of university life are those people who manoevre themselves into positions in the university which are not academic, but for an academic purpose. This is not done out of indifference to academic concerns. On the contrary, the people I am talking about take charge of the faculty air condition system, or (as is the case I am about to refer to) become janitors, out of an enthusiasm for the academic life, but accompanied by an unwillingness to bear the usual burdens of a conventional academic post, in the form of such annoyances as teaching unwelcome pupils, administrative duties, or tiresome instructions from academic superiors. Either that, or the university just wouldn't give them a proper job, so they got an improper one.

I remember people of this sort when I was at university. Their success rate is presumably not much different from that of regular academics. Most just live out their lives in obscurity, and by the end of it all they are janitors, or whatever. But occasionally they hit the big time. Bryson recounts one such success story.

In the 1860s, journals and other learned publications in Britain began to receive papers on hydrostatics, electricity and other scientific subjects from a James Croll of Andersen's University in Glasgow. One of the papers, on how variations in the Earth's orbit might have precipitated ice ages, was published in the Philosophical Magazine in 1864 and was recognized at once as a work of the highest standard. So there was some surprise, and perhaps just a touch of embarrassment, when it turned out that Croll was not an academic at the university, but a janitor.

Born in 1821, Croll grew up poor and his formal education lasted only to the age of thirteen. He worked at a variety of jobs – as a carpenter, insurance salesman, keeper of a temperance hotel – before taking a position as a janitor at Anderson's (now the University of Strathclyde) in Glasgow. By somehow inducing his brother to do much of his work, he was able to pass many quiet evenings in the university library teaching himself physics, mechanics, astronomy, hydrostatics and the other fashionable sciences of the day, and gradually began to produce a string of papers, with a particular emphasis on the motions of the Earth and their effect on climate.

Croll was the first to suggest that cyclical changes in the shape of the Earth's orbit, from elliptical (which is to say, slightly oval) to nearly circular to elliptical again, might explain the onset and retreat of ice ages. No-one had ever thought before to consider an astronomical explanation for variations in the Earth's weather. Thanks almost entirely to Croll's persuasive theory, people in Britain began to become more responsive to the notion that at some former time parts of the Earth had been in the grip of ice. When his ingenuity and aptitude were recognized, Croll was given a job at the Geological Survey of Scotland and widely honoured: he was made a fellow of the Royal Society in London and of the New York Academy of Science, and given an honorary degree from the University of St Andrews, among much else.


People like this, when they make their first academic breakthroughs, are often celebrated as Holy Fools. Uneducated illuminati. They are nothing of the sort. They are very well educated, but by themselves.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:15 PM
Category: Famous educationsScience