James David Forbes - Encyclopedia

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JAMES DAVID FORBES (1809-1868), Scottish physicist, was the fourth son of Sir William Forbes, 7th baronet of Pitsligo, and was born at Edinburgh on the 10th of April 1809. He entered the university of Edinburgh in 1825, and soon afterwards began to contribute papers to the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal anonymously under the signature "A." At the age of nineteen he became a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and in 1832 he was elected to the Royal Society of London. A year later he was appointed professor of natural philosophy in Edinburgh University, in succession to Sir John Leslie and in competition with Sir David Brewster, and during his tenure of that office, which he did not give up till 1860, he not only proved himself an active and efficient teacher, but also did much to improve the internal conditions of the university. In 1859 he was appointed successor to Brewster in the principalship of the United College of St Andrews, a position which he held until his death at Clifton on the 31st of December 1868.

As a scientific investigator he is best known for his researches on heat and on glaciers. Between 1836 and 1844 he published in the Trans. Roy. Soc. Ed. four series of "Researches on Heat," in the course of which he described the polarization of heat by tourmaline, by transmission through a bundle of thin mica plates inclined to the transmitted ray, and by reflection from the multiplied surfaces of a pile of mica plates placed at the polarizing angle, and also its circular polarization by two internal reflections in rhombs of rock-salt. His work won him the Rumford medal of the Royal Society in 1838, and in 1843 he received its Royal medal for a paper on the "Transparency of the Atmosphere and the Laws of Extinction of the Sun's Rays passing through it." In 1846 he began experiments on the temperature of the earth at different depths and in different soils near Edinburgh, which yielded determinations of the thermal conductivity of trap-tufa, sandstone and pure loose sand. Towards the end of his life he was occupied with experimental inquiries into the laws of the conduction of heat in bars, and his last piece of work was to show that the thermal conductivity of iron diminishes with increase of temperature. His attention was directed to the question of the flow of glaciers in 1840 when he met Louis Agassiz at the Glasgow meeting of the British Association, and in subsequent years he made several visits to Switzerland and also to Norway for the purpose of obtaining accurate data. His observations led him to the view that a glacier is an imperfect fluid or a viscous body which is urged down slopes of a certain inclination by the mutual pressure of its parts, and involved him in some controversy with Tyndall and others both as to priority and to scientific principle. Forbes was also interested in geology, and published memoirs on the thermal springs of the Pyrenees, on the extinct volcanoes of the Vivarais (Ardeche), on the geology of the Cuchullin and Eildon hills, &c. In addition to about 150 scientific papers, he wrote Travels through the Alps of Savoy and Other Parts of the Pennine Chain, with Observations on the Phenomena of Glaciers (1843); Norway and its Glaciers (1853); Occasional Papers on the Theory of Glaciers (1859); A Tour of Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa (1855). He was also the author (1852) of the "Dissertation on the Progress of Mathematical and Physical Science," published in the 8th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. See Forbes's Life and Letters, by Principal Shairp, Professor P. G. Tait and A. Adams-Reilly (1873); Professor Forbes and his Biographers, by J. Tyndall (1873).

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