Pioneer sailing on the crest of a wave-particle

The Life and Legacy of G. I. Taylor
March 14, 1997

Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers in their generations", from Ecclesiasticus, could also form the introduction to George Batchelor's affectionate biography of his one-time mentor, the prolific and versatile pioneer of 20th-century fluid dynamics in Cambridge, Geoffrey Ingram Taylor.

Batchelor seeks to cover almost all aspects of Taylor's life, from his early family background and origins, his first forays into scientific research before the first world war, the progress of his personal life, attitudes and pastimes outside science, as well as his prolific scientific output throughout a research career spanning some 65 years, up to the period just before his death in 1975. Much is clearly aimed at a scientifically literate general reader, and for many of the events reported Batchelor writes, from close personal contact with Taylor, of a warm-hearted, likable enthusiast for science and mathematics and for the pleasures of adventure and outdoor life.

In the description of Taylor's early life, we see some fascinating insights into the development of scientific attitudes and practice in England through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, illustrating some very unfamiliar notions to present-day scientists. For example, Batchelor takes great glee in noting that Taylor "never had a secretary, never took leave away from Cambridge ... and never applied for a research grant". The latter achievement does not imply his research did not require substantial resources, though the hallmark of much of his experimental work was its exquisite simplicity, but that sufficient resources were provided when needed by sponsors and institutions with relatively little prompting from Taylor himself. In one of the few comments on Taylor's weaknesses, Batchelor notes that he took great pleasure in seeking and demonstrating close agreement between experiment and theory, but paid little attention to the niceties of statistical significance.

Much of the book is concerned with Taylor's many distinguished scientific contributions in quantum physics, meteorology and oceanography, theoretical and experimental fluid mechanics, applied mathematics and condensed-matter physics. Given that Taylor's major claim to greatness derives from his pioneering work on such diverse and apparently disconnected problems as the dispersion of material in turbulent motion, the structure of the atmospheric boundary layer, the stability of shear flows (notably the now famous Taylor-Couette experiment), plasticity of crystalline materials, and a host of other problems in fluid mechanics, a discussion of the significance of his contributions is an essential element in any biography. But this component of the book was one of the less satisfactory aspects of the story.

Individuality and independence of thought were Taylor's watchwords, at least as emphasised by Batchelor, and this became clear from the earliest point in Taylor's career. His first experimental research project was to attempt to demonstrate optical interference patterns under conditions of such faint illumination that only one photon was present in the experiment at a time; at which point the exposure time on a photographic plate was around six weeks (incidentally, as Taylor himself comments, allowing him "to start a month's cruise in a little sailing yacht (he) had just purchased"). The successful outcome of this experiment confirmed one of the essential paradoxes (described by Richard Feynman as the "central mystery") of quantum physics, namely, the dual wave-particle nature of light. Despite the success of this first venture into the newly emerging and fashionable subject of "modern physics", however, Taylor did not "feel a call to a career in pure physics", preferring instead to follow his own way into the more prosaic, but eventually more rewarding, field of fluid mechanics.

It was this obdurate sense of independence, Batchelor suggests, that led Taylor away from a fashionable field into less obvious areas of research that he perceived to be "significant" and ultimately "useful" in engineering or environmental science. Indeed Batchelor believes the key to Taylor's subsequent greatness as a scientist lay in his uncanny ability to choose what may have seemed rather narrow and relatively unpromising problems in mechanical science, but later turned out to be important and influential, and his approach in rigorously subjecting his mathematical ideas to (often ingenious) experimental verification.

Taylor died shortly before I began my own career in scientific research, and so I never had the good fortune to meet him; after reading Batchelor's account of his life and work, I wish I had.

Peter L. Read is lecturer in physics, University of Oxford.

The Life and Legacy of G. I. Taylor

Author - George Batchelor
ISBN - 0 521 46121 9
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 280

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments