1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Airy, Sir George Biddell
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Airy, Sir George Biddell
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Airy, Sir George Biddell (1801-1892), British Astronomer Royal, was born at Alnwick ot the 27th of July 1801. He came of a long line of Airys who traced their descent back to a family of the same name residing at Kentmere, in Westmorland, in the 14th century; but the branch to which he belonged, for several generations they lived as farmers. George Airy was educated first at elementary schools in Hereford, and afterwards at Colchester Grammar School. In 1819 he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, as a sizar. Here he had a brilliant career, an seems to have been almost immediately recognized as the leading man of his year. In 1822 he was elected scholar of Trinity, and in the following year he graduated as senior wrangler and obtained first Smith's prize. On the 1st of October 1824 he was elected fellow of Trinity, and in December 1826 was appointed Lucasian professor of mathematics in succession to Thomas Turton. This chair he held for little more than a year, being elected in February 1828 Plumian professor of astronomy and director of the new Cambridge observatory. Some idea of his activity as a writer on mathematical and physical subjects during these early years may be gathered from the fact that previous to this appointment he had contributed to less then tree important memoirs to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and eight to the Cambridge Philosophical Society. At the Cambridge observatory Airy soon gave evidence of his remarkable power of organization. The only telescope erected in the establishment when he took it in charge was the transit instrument, an to this he vigorously devoted himself. By the adoption of a regular system of work, and a careful plan of reduction, he was able to keep his observations reduced practically up to date, and published them annually with a degree of punctuality which astonished his contemporaries. Before long an mural circle was installed, and regular observations were instituted with it in 1833. In the same year the duke of Northumberland presented the Cambridge observatory with a fine object-glass of 12 in. aperture, which was mounted according to Airy's designs and under his superintendence, although the erection was not completed until after his removal to Greenwich in 1835. Airy's writings during this time are divided between mathematical physics and astronomy. The former are for the most part concerned with questions relating to the theory of light, arising out of his professorial lectures, among which may be specially mentioned his paper "On the Diffraction of an Object-Glass with Circular Aperture." In 1831 the Copley medal of the Royal Society was awarded to him for these researches. Of his astronomical writing during this period the most important are his investigation of the mass of Jupiter, his report to the British Association on the progress of astronomy during the 19th century, and his memoir On an Inequality of Long Period in the Motions of the Earth and Venus.
One of the sections of his able and instructive report was devoted to "A Comparison of the Progress of Astronomy in England with that in other Countries," very much to the disadvantage of England. This reproach was subsequently to a great extent removed by his own labours.
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