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Whewell, William

scientific college theory royal

[ hyoo el] (1794–1866) British polymath, now best known for his survey of the scientific method and for creating scientific words.

Whewell was the son of a Lancastrian carpenter; he gained a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge and showed his breadth of talent by winning prizes for poetry and for mathematics. He remained there and from 1820–40 taught and wrote on mechanics, geology, astronomy, theology, ethics and architecture. He was also active in the work of the Royal Society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geological Society. He was successively professor of mineralogy and of moral philosophy, Master of his college from 1841 and vice-chancellor of the university in 1842 and 1855.

The liking many felt for him was not universal; he was both self-conscious and forceful. As Master, he did not allow Fellows to have keys to their college, or dogs or cigars within it, or to marry (he was twice married himself). Undergraduates could not sit in his presence and he required nude paintings to be removed from view in the Fitzwilliam Museum. A Royal Commission’s proposal that all Fellows be allowed to vote at college meetings infuriated him.

More positively, he inspired many able young men and his texts and his teaching in applied mathematics gave the necessary basis for Cambridge’s later successes in physics; and he pressed his view that every well-educated man should know something of engineering theory. In mineralogy, he founded mathematical crystallography (on the basis of theory of crystal structure) and developed classification of minerals. He became the authority on names for new scientific concepts, creating the now-familiar ‘scientist’ and ‘physicist’ by analogy with ‘artist’. They soon replaced the older term ‘natural philosopher’. Other useful words were coined to help his friends: biometry for ; Eocine, Miocene and Pliocene for ; and for anode, cathode, dia- and para-magnetic, and ion (whence the sundry other particle names ending in -on).

In meteorology Whewell devised a self-recording anemometer. He was second only to in his work on tides and tidal theory, including organizing and collating tidal observations worldwide and winning a Royal Medal.

His History and Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1837–60) examined the nature of scientific discovery, which he saw as requiring imaginative guesses which were capable of disproof or verification. Now a classic, it still has authority in its survey of scientific ideas from the Greeks to the 19th-c.

Rather unusually for a scientist he died as a result of being thrown from his horse.

Whipper, Leigh (1877–1975) [next] [back] When She Was Bad

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