If you ever thought that mountaineering and science were incompatible then you were very wrong. From the very earliest days of formal exploration and mountaineering, expeditions were a partnership between adventurers and scientists. The first big expedition that I went on was intended to be partly scientific with doctors wanting to do some research on genetic susceptibility to altitude sickness. The original idea was that a professor from my local university would climb with us and would take blood as we went. He hoped to isolate two genetic markers that could also prove useful in diagnosing other diseases.
The links between science and mountaineering have now been put to formal study by a researcher at Montana State University. Michael Reidy, who specialises in the history of science, has combined his own love of mountains with his scholarly work. He recently presented a paper at the university of the Rockies on the life of Irish physicist John Tyndall, a pioneer climber in the Swiss Alps. Among his many first ascents was that of the Wiesshorn.
According to a statement by the university on the talk:
At the time of his most daring climbs, Tyndall was also celebrated as one of the greatest and most controversial scientists in Europe, Reidy said. He was a staunch defender of Darwinism and the discoverer of the natural greenhouse effect (which is why all climate research centers in Britain are named Tyndall Centres). He combined his two passions — climbing and physics — by incorporating a vertical orientation into his research.
Tyndall died two strange deaths, both at the hands of his wife Louisa, Reidy said. In his first death, she accidentally gave him an overdose of a powerful narcotic. In her grief, she demanded control of all his correspondence and journals to write a biography glorifying his life. Twenty-five years his junior, she outlived him by forty-five years, without publishing anything. As a result, Tyndall endured a second, more prolonged death, and today he is largely forgotten.
The tale is a compelling one and I wish I knew more about it. I’ve searched around a little but can’t find more on this. Still, the combination of science and climbing is one that fascinates me too. You can read more about a post I wrote a few years back on the climbing gear worn by Mallory that has been recreated and tested. To find out about what he wore on his 1924 Everest expedition click the link.