The Astronomical Achievements of Sir George Biddell Airy

George Biddell Airy

 Sir George Biddell Airy
caricatured by Spy in Vanity Fair, 1875

On July 27, 1801, English mathematician, astronomer, and Astronomer Royal George Biddell Airy was born. His many achievements include work on planetary orbits, measuring the mean density of the Earth, a method of solution of two-dimensional problems in solid mechanics and, in his role as Astronomer Royal, establishing Greenwich as the location of the prime meridian.

George Biddell Airy showed talents in mathematics very early at school and it is believed that he studied for instance arithmetic, double-entry book keeping and how to use a slide rule. He lived with his uncle for many years, who owned a large library with books on chemistry, biology, optics, as well as mechanics. In 1819, Airy entered Trinity College, Cambridge and graduated as Senior Wrangler in 1823. He was awarded a fellowship at Trinity and became determined to start a position with a decent financial status to be able to marry after unsuccessfully proposing to Richarda Smith, due to his inability to support her. George Biddell Airy was appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge only three years after he had graduated from Cambridge. However, his triumph in receiving the position was also followed by a longterm rivalry with Charles Babbage who also applied for the position.


George Biddell Airy earned a good reputation and was appointed Plumian Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge and Director of the Cambridge Observatory. Due to his increased salary, Airy was finally allowed to marry Richarda Smith in 1830. Five years later, Airy became Astronomer Royal and moved to Greenwich where he was for example responsible for the renovation of the observatory’s instruments. [1,2]

During his academic career, Airy wrote the text ‘On the Algebraic and Numerical Theory of Errors of Observations and the Combinations of Observations’. Even though it was supposed to be quite hard to read, it possibly influenced Pearson. Further notable works by Airy are ‘Trigonometry’, ‘Gravitation’, as well as ‘Partial differential equations’. George Biddell Airy made major contributions to mathematics and astronomy and improved the orbital theory of Venus and the Moon. The scientist studied interference fringes in optics, and made a mathematical study of the rainbow. Further, Airy became famous for his caluculation of the density of the Earth by swinging a pendulum at the top and bottom of a deep mine, even though the value he measured was too large. [1,2]

Next to his achievements in astronomy, George Biddell Airy was known to be interested in poetry as well as history, theology, architecture and many further subjects. In some fields, he even managed to publish papers including works on Julius Caesar. However, the opinions on Airy’s scientific achievements differ. Some point out Airy’s “failure” to discover planet Neptune. In the 1840s, Airy began to communicate with the French astronomer Urbain Le Verrier over the possibility that irregularities in the motion of Uranus were due to an unobserved body. A few weeks later, he gave the order to systematically search for it in order to secure the triumph for Britain. Unfortunately for Airy however, Johann Gottfried Galle won the race and Airy basically took the blame. Still, due to his achievements, many see George Biddell Airy as one of the most important scientists of the 19th century. He died on 2 January 1892. [2,3]

At yovisto, you may be interested in a short but highly interesting explanation of the Discovery of Neptune.

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