Occupation, Sphere of Activity
George Biddell Airy (1801-1892), an astronomer royal, was influenced in childhood by his educated uncle Arthur Biddell, whose library probably introduced Airy to the sciences. With support from his uncle - and his own hard work (he was a sizar - a student who works as a servant in order to qualify for reduced fees), he was able to attend Trinity College, Cambridge, from which he graduated with the top first class degree.
Airy had a long-running feud with Charles Babbage (1791-1871) during his career, over a chair which Airy won at Babbage's expense. Their bickering led to a number of controversies - not always linked to science, in which the two opposed each other. While Airy usually won these disputes, it is far from clear that he was usually right.
Airy was an authoritarian astronomer royal, and though he was clearly talented, some have suggested his principal gift was making others work - "Airy was not a great scientist, but he made great science possible." During his tenure, no young astronomers were trained at the observatory, because he could not tolerate opinions diverging from his own. His personal contributions to the science were relatively minor - mostly accurate data and corrections of the work of previous scientists - most famously Jean-Baptiste Delambre's (1749-1822) work on the relative motion of Venus and the Earth.
As astronomer royal, he built the Airy Transit Circle, which defines the exact position of the Greenwich meridian.
Airy had a long-running feud with Charles Babbage (1791-1871) .
Other Significant Information
Mathematical Tracts on Physical Astronomy, the Figure
of the Earth, Precession and Nutation (
Gravitation: an Elementary Explanation of the
Principal Perturburances in the Solar System (
Six Lectures on Astronomy (
A Treatise on Trigonometry (
On the Algebraical and Numerical Theory of Errors of
Observation and the Combination of Observations (
An Elementary Treatise on Partial Differential
On Sound and Atmospheric Vibrations, With the
Mathematical Elements of Music (
A Treatise on Magnetism (
Undulatory Theory of Optics (
Numerical Lunar Theory (
Autobiography of Sir George Airy (
Interests and activities:
Airy suffered from astigmatism. He invented the cylindrical lens to correct this eye defect.
Honours, Qualifications and Appointments
1823: Awarded Smith Prize
1824: Elected Fellow, Trinity College, Cambridge
1826: Appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, University of Cambridge
1826: Appointed to the Board of Longitude
1828: Appointed Plumian Professor of Astronomy, University of Cambridge
1828: Appointed Director of the Cambridge Observatory
1831: Awarded Copley Medal of the Royal Society
1835: Appointed Astronomer Royal
1835: Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
1836: Elected Fellow of the Royal Society
1844: Awarded Doctor of Laws (DCL) Degree, University of Oxford
1845: Awarded Royal Medal of the Royal Society
1845: Elected President, Royal Astronomical Society
1851: Elected President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science
1862: Awarded Doctor of Laws (LLD) Degree, University of Cambridge
1871: Elected President, Royal Society
1872: Awarded Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB)
List of sources for the biographical information: