George Gabriel Stokes (1819-1903)

George Stokes George Stokes, the renowned mathematician, physicist, politician and theologian, was born on 13th August 1819, the youngest of eight children in an evangelical Protestant family in Skreen, County Sligo.

His father Gabriel Stokes, was the Protestant minister of the parish of Skreen. His mother Elizabeth Haughton, was the daughter of a minister of the church. So obviously George Stokes' upbringing was a very religious, though happy one, where the family grew up in the fresh sea-air with well-knit frames and active minds, and no expense was spared on meeting the educational needs of the large family.

After attending school in Skreen until he was 16, George Stokes moved to England and entered Bristol College where he showed great talent for mathematics during his studies there. In 1849 he entered the University of Cambridge where he served as the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics from 1849 until his death on 1st February 1903.

George's best-known researches during this time dealt with the wave theory of light. His optical work began at an early period in his scientific career and his first papers on the aberration of light appeared in 1845 and 1846, and were followed in 1848 by a paper on the theory of certain bands seen in the spectrum.

A bust of George Gabriel StokesHe also published papers on the steady motion of incompressible fluids and some cases of fluid motion. These were followed in 1845 by one on the friction of fluids in motion and the equilibrium and motion of elastic solids, and in 1850 by another on the effects of the internal friction of fluids on the motion of pendulums.

Amongst the most important event's in the recognition of Stokes as a leading mathematician were his seminal contributions to fluid dynamics (including the Navier-Stokes equations), optics, and mathematical physics (including the first version of what is now known as Stokes' theorem).

George's life became a hectic melange of researching and publishing. It was stated that there was almost no topic in physics which Stokes did not meddle with, publish on, or lecture in throughout his lifetime, the sole exception being electricity.

In particular, Stokes focused on optics, friction in fluids, fluorescence (a phenomena he named and explained as the product of light whose wavelength had changed as a result of the substance it had been refracted from), planetary orbits and the 'mysterious' luminiferous ether, as Stokes called it.

Stokes spent a great deal of his life researching the nature of this ether, which he ultimately concluded was analogous to a jelly-like substance pervading the entire universe. Like jelly, it was solid enough to transmit light rays through it (since the theory was that light rays could not travel in a vacuum), yet it was fluid enough to allow the planets to orbit through it. By the middle of the century, Stokes was a widely demanded lecturer.

George Stokes was involved in several investigations into railway accidents, especially the Dee Bridge Disaster in May 1847, and he served as a member of the subsequent Royal Commission into the use of cast iron in railway structures. He contributed to the calculation of the forces exerted by moving engines on bridges. The bridge failed because a cast iron beam was used to support the loads of passing trains. Cast iron is brittle in tension or bending, and many other similar bridges had to be demolished or reinforced.

In 1849, Stokes was appointed to the Lucasian Professorship of mathematics at Cambridge, a position he held until his death in 1903. On 1st June 1899, the jubilee of this appointment was celebrated there in a ceremony, which was attended by numerous delegates from European and American universities. A commemorative gold medal was presented to Stokes by the chancellor of the university, and marble busts of Stokes by Hamo Thornycroft were formally offered to Pembroke College and to the university by Lord Kelvin.

Stokes, who was made a baronet in 1889, further served his university by representing it in parliament from 1887 to 1892 as one of the two members for the Cambridge University constituency. During a portion of this period (1885-1890) he also was president of the Royal Society, of which he had been one of the secretaries since 1854. Since he was also Lucasian Professor at this time, Stokes was the first person to hold all three positions simultaneously; Newton held the same three, although not all at the same time.

George Stokes died at Cambridge on 1st February 1903 and was buried in the Mill Road Cemetery in Cambridge.

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This page was last updated on Sunday 8 May 2016.

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