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James Whitbread Lee Glaisher

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5 Nov 1848

Lewisham, Kent, England

7 Dec 1928

Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England

James Glaisher's mother was Cecilia Louisa Belville and his father, a leading mathematician and astronomer, was also named James Glaisher. James senior worked at the Royal Observatory and he married Cecilia who was the daughter of Henry Belville, an assistant at the Observatory. Before examining James Junior's biography, let us note that his father was the first to recognise the existence of the stratosphere. He made a balloon ascents which are described in the Report of the Council of the Royal Astronomical Society of 1862:

One of the main objects of [Glaisher and Coxwell's] ascents was to extend and improve our knowledge of the relation which exists between increase of elevation and the corresponding variations of temperature and moisture, these variations in their turn having an intimate bearing on the theoretic determination of atmospheric refraction. The results of Mr Glaisher's observations indicate that the [current] hypothesis ... must be abandoned ...

James was his parents eldest son, having one brother and one sister, and he attended St Paul's School in London, winning a scholarship in 1867 to study at Trinity College, Cambridge. His mathematical researches began while he was still an undergraduate and he wrote a paper on the sine integral, cosine integral, and exponential integral, giving tables of these integrals which he had computed himself. The paper was communicated to the Royal Society by Cayley .

In the final examination of 1871 Glaisher was placed second. Elected to a fellowship at Trinity College, he became a tutor and lecturer and taught at Cambridge all his life. In the same year in which he graduated Glaisher joined the Royal Astronomical Society and so began a long association with that Society. In 1872 he joined the London Mathematical Society . He went on to hold high office in both these Societies, being Secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society from 1877 to 1884, then President from 1886 to 1888 and again from 1901 to 1903. He was President of the London Mathematical Society 1884-1886.

Glaisher wrote over 400 articles on his main interests of astronomy, special functions , calculation of numerical tables, number theory , and the history of mathematics. His historical interests were on the early development of numerical computation, Stevin and the beginnings of the decimal system, Napier , Briggs and the beginnings of logarithms as well as the mathematical notation + and -. He applied special functions to problems in number theory, in particular representations of integers as sums of squares.

The importance of Glaisher is less in the original research he did, much more in that he brought these mathematical topics into the Cambridge syllabus so setting it up to produce the outstanding English mathematicians who were educated there shortly afterwards. Forsyth , writes in :

The earliest years of his teaching at Cambridge were a time of transition in the mathematical ideals of the University. Cayley was almost a voice in the wilderness; Glaisher himself described Cambridge pure mathematics as generals without armies. When he had ceased teaching, Cambridge pure mathematics had marched beyond his active vision mainly under men whom, as students, he had guided at the beginning. His voice was that of a teacher, yet not in the least similar to the great Cambridge coaches, for he contributed to his science and ranged far beyond conventional examination learning. He was a personality in his day; and he left a name, high among the noted names of his generation, in two widely different fields of constructive thought and human activity.

Glaisher received many honours. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1875, served three terms on its council, received the Society's Sylvester Medal in 1913, and was vice-president in 1917-19. He received the De Morgan Medal of the London Mathematical Society in 1908. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh , the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, and was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Dublin on the occasion of their tercentenary. He also served as president of some Societies with interests far removed from mathematics being president of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society and the Cambridge University Bicycle Club.

One honour, which it is less than certain he was offered, was the office of Astronomer Royal. It is believed that Glaisher was offered this post when Airy retired in 1871 but that he declined.

One of Glaisher's hobbies was collecting works of art :

... he will be remembered as one of the leading pottery collectors of his time. His attention in this direction was at first occupied by Delft ware, but from the Dutch pottery he was led to take an interest in the English wares made in emulation of it, and so in other types of English pottery of early date.

Forsyth describes the affect on his rooms at Cambridge:

... his collections never ceased to grow, always under his earnest care. ... his collections outgrew available space, downstairs, upstairs, even in his remote bedroom. He was granted an additional set of rooms at the top of his staircase and next to the upper floor of his own set; they, too, soon were filled. He then hired a sort of warehouse, that also became filled in due course. ... the Fitzwilliam Museum ... granted him a room (also soon filled) in the new wing...

As to Glaisher's character, Forsyth tells us that:

His smile of appreciation was delightful and infectious; when appreciation waxed into admiration, his attractive eyes would glow in his enthusiasm. Singularly fluent, he never aimed at eloquence in speech, yet dignified passages abound in his formal addresses. ... There was no shred of pomposity in his bearing, which was frank and simple.

Source:School of Mathematics and Statistics University of St Andrews, Scotland