York prof looks at the correspondence of scientist John Tyndall

What do the colour of the sky, the greenhouse effect and mountaineering have in common? The answer: John Tyndall (1820-1893), a leading figure in the 19th-century debates over evolution and a celebrated Victorian physicist. His research was expansive: he was the first person to explain why the sky is blue and the first to prove the greenhouse effect in the earth’s atmosphere. He was also a pioneering mountain climber. York humanities Professor Bernard Lightman and his international team of collaborators are hoping to shed light on his thinking.

Right: John Tyndall

Tyndall was a huge figure in scientific circles during the 19th century, but we don’t know a great deal about him. He is best remembered today for his controversial Belfast Address in 1874 to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in which he advocated the supremacy of scientific thought over religious belief. After that, it is as if he dropped off of the historical record. This is due in part to the fact that his correspondence was not readily available to be studied. Lightman and company are remedying this by combining international collaboration and modern technology to resurrect Tyndall’s correspondence.

Lightman, based in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, and his Montana State University co-applicant, Professor Michael Reidy, recently won US$580,000 in funding – to be disbursed over three years – from the United States National Science Foundation (similar to the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council of Canada). The pair are completing a research project titled "John Tyndall and Nineteenth-Century Science”, which involves locating, collecting, digitizing, transcribing, editing, annotating and eventually publishing John Tyndall’s correspondence, comprising more than 8,000 letters that are scattered throughout the world.

Left: Bernard Lightman

Lightman modelled this endeavour on the Darwin Correspondence Project, a similar but much larger UK-based undertaking involving the letters of Tyndall’s friend and contemporary, the famous naturalist Charles Darwin.

In preparing their grant application, Lightman and Reidy considered trying something unusual for humanities research, thinking it might improve their chances of receiving the award. They proposed bringing the collaborative and organizational techniques of scientific research to humanities research – where researchers traditionally work alone, not in teams – and to see how education could benefit from new tools and practices. They also recognized it as an effective use of limited resources.

The Tyndall Correspondence Project, says Lightman, wouldn’t be possible without modern technology. “I wouldn’t have even conceived of doing this 10 or 15 years ago,” he says. The logistics would have been too overwhelming, says Lightman, and unlike the resources available to the Darwin Project’s researchers, the budget for Lightman’s project is comparatively small. So Lightman and his team – at universities in Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US – have leveraged the processing power of computers and the Internet to make the information-pooling of their decentralized operations more efficient.

The Royal Institution of Great Britain transferred most of the letters, about 6,000 of them, to microfilm. The remainder of the letters came from about 30 other archival locations. Lightman had them all digitized to TIFF format, allowing for electronic display and distribution. (The incongruity of sending 19th-century letters by e-mail doesn’t escape him.)

Transcriptions undergo a filtering process. Junior members of the team transcribe the letters, including annotations and palimpsests, and send the transcriptions to the more senior members –who are more familiar with the idiosyncrasies of Tyndall’s written words – for proofing. Senior members refine the transcription, eliminating errors and increasing accuracy.

A not-uncommon challenge that might be unfamiliar to contemporary writers is ink jar spills. Correspondents, not wishing to waste paper, frequently simply turned the page over and continued to write on the back. The team encountered many such problems, which took many forms.  

Two of Lightman’s assistants are Bethune College academic adviser James Elwick, who is serving as the project coordinator, and York PhD candidate in history, Steve Bunn, who is working as the logistics coordinator. The pair have developed a number of techniques to facilitate transcription, a process based in trial and error. They started out thinking that optical character recognition technology – software that translates text on printed, typewritten or handwritten documents into electronically editable text – would be the perfect tool for them. However, they soon discovered it was only about 80 per cent accurate, creating more work as human transcribers were needed to verify the computer’s interpretation, and the technique was quickly abandoned. “You can’t divine the intention behind it, which is really the secret behind a lot of transcription,” says Elwick.  

Nevertheless, Elwick and Bunn continued to explore different techniques to optimize the transcription process. For instance, they discovered the benefits of computer-voice playback. After researchers have transcribed a letter to a Microsoft Word document, they get a computer voice to read it back aloud as they review the original text of the letter. This allows them to proof the transcription without having to resort to moving their eyes back and forth between the original and the copy. To increase legibility, they often magnify and stretch the digitized images. To remove visual background clutter, they illuminate, darken or increase the contrast as required.

To enable international collaboration, the team started out trying to e-mail files to one another. However, the files were huge and file-size limits on e-mail constrained them. They tried Web-based e-mail systems like Google but, at 25 megabytes, they too were limiting. They tried using FTP sites, but they found them to be user-unfriendly. They then tried a service similar to York’s Dropbox, but it removed message attachments if not retrieved within seven days. They finally settled on a Web-based service that allows them to store information online and affords access to the information by various subscribers.

Right: One of Tyndall’s letters

Complementing this, the pair discovered an inexpensive file management program that allows them to preview the contents of files before opening them, an hour-saving boon when exploring numerous files. It also tracks the accessing of files – who, when, what changes were made etc. – and allows researchers to leave messages for one another. It’s a virtual laboratory occupied by international collaborators.

Elwick is always on the lookout for extra tools and has discovered that new accessories often beget new capabilities. Recent additions to their collection include a Webcam, which he subsequently realized would come in very handy when training new and remote transcribers. They plan to use it for video-conferencing too. They also discovered some Web-based polling software that eases the task of scheduling meetings by removing the need for endless e-mailing back and forth.

Not all of the group’s activities occur remotely. In the summer of 2010, some members of the team will meet at a conference in Leeds, UK, followed by a conference on evolutionary naturalism at York in the spring of 2011. Lightman plans to have all the transcribing done in about three and a half more years. “The hope is that, by then, we’ll have people lined up to edit each volume of the correspondence,” says Lightman. A year later, he hopes to have the correspondence available to researchers both in hard-copy format and in a text-searchable version on the Web.

“We hope, in the end, to galvanize a community of scholars around themes raised through an intense study of John Tyndall," said Lightman. "These themes include the relationship between science and religion, the popularization and professionalization of science, and advances in physics, glaciology, climatology and spontaneous generation, each of which individually and collectively played fundamental roles in the development of modern science.” In the end, his goal is to make the 19th-century figure of John Tyndall better known.  

For more information on the Tyndall Correspondence Project, visit it online. For more on Lightman’s work as it relates to John Tyndall, see YFile, July 31, 2008.

Submitted by David Wallace, communications coordinator, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies