Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Arthur Eddington

1882 - 1944

Arthur Eddington was born into a Quaker family in Kendal. He was interested in stars from boyhood, and was loaned his first telescope at the age of ten. At sixteen, he was awarded a scholarship to Owens College, Manchester, the forerunner of the University of Manchester, graduating with a First Class Honours degree in Physics in 1902. This led to a scholarship to Trinity College Cambridge.

In 1906, Eddington became chief assistant to the Astronomer Royal at the Royal Greenwich Observatory. There he developed a new statistical method for observing stars, which won him the Smith's Prize in 1907 and led to a fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge. At the same time, he was active in the Quaker Guild of Teachers, a group which helped its members to understand and integrate their faith and their intellectual life. In 1912 he became Plumian Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge and in 1913, Director of the Cambridge Observatory.

The First World War was a difficult period for Eddington. His Quaker principles led him to call for British scientists to preserve their pre-war friendships and co-operation with German scientists, which many believed should be severed.

As Secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society, he was the first to receive a series of papers sent by William de Sitter, a Dutch astronomer who had met Einstein in neutral Holland, about Einstein’s theory of general relativity. By the end of the war Eddington had become one of the few to master Einstein's general theory, and had written the first account of it in English.

When conscription was introduced in Britain in 1916, Eddington registered as a conscientious objector. In 1918, when the authorities sought to rescind his registration, he declared:

Even if the abstention of conscientious objectors were to make the difference between victory and defeat, we cannot truly benefit the nation by wilful disobedience to the divine will.

At his final hearing, the Astronomer Royal, Frank Dyson, argued for his exemption on the grounds that Eddington was due to undertake an expedition to observe the total eclipse the following year to test Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. He was granted a twelve-month extension to undertake the expedition, by which time the war had ended.

It was this expedition to record the solar eclipse at the African island of Principe on 29 May 1919 that provided conclusive proof of Einstein’s theory of that light is subject to gravitation. As Eddington described in his journal:

The rain stopped about noon and about 1:30 we began to get a glimpse of the sun. ... I did not see the eclipse, being too busy changing plates, except for one glance to make sure that it had begun and another half-way through to see how much cloud there was. ...The last few photographs show a few images which I hope will give us what we need.

Eddington’s views on religion and science were expressed in several publications, including The Nature of the Physical World (1927) and his Swarthmore lecture of 1929, Science and the Unseen World. He saw no dichotomy between personal religious experience and the new physics. Indeed, he felt there was a close relationship between religious mysticism and the feeling of inspiration experienced by scientists on the cusp of a major breakthrough. He also thought that both religion and science were characterised by searching, and wrote:
It is the search that matters. You will understand the true spirit neither of science nor of religion unless seeking is placed in the forefront.

Eddington had the gift of explaining scientific theory to the general public in a way that was both clear and entertaining. Einstein himself called Eddington’s 1923 book, Mathematical Theory of Relativity, the finest presentation of the subject in any language.

In his later years, Eddington continued to try to unify quantum theory, relativity and gravitation. Some of his tentative work from this period still underpins modern attempts at a Grand Unified Theory. Much of his theoretical work was later borne out by empirical observations.

Eddington was knighted in 1930, and received the Order of Merit in 1938, as well as many other honours from astronomical societies around the world. The “Eddington limit”, the natural limit to the luminosity of stars, is named after him.

He died in Cambridge, England on 22 November 1944.

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