George Green – the unschooled Nottingham mathematician championed by Einstein and Kelvin

There’s a new special exhibition opening tomorrow (12 September) at Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham University, presenting the life of George Green, a working man from Nottingham born in 1793 whose insights on electricity and magnetism were praised by Nobel prizewinners Lord Kelvin, Einstein and Julian Schwinger. There’s a plaque paying tribute to his work – with a windmill symbol representing his home and where he did his maths – alongside Isaac Newton at Westminster cathedral. But his genius was never recognized during his lifetime, and he died in obscurity in 1841.

greenswindmill

Green’s Windmill in Sneinton, Nottingham

In 1845 Thomas Thomson – later Lord Kelvin – read his essay while studying at Cambridge University, and republished it, paying tribute to Green and popularising his work among the new generation of physicists. Green’s mathematical technique, called Green’s theory, is widely used today, and became the basis for the 20th century pillar of modern physics called Quantum Field Theory developed by Feynman, among others. In that sense he was 120 years before his time.

Green grew up and worked in his father’s mill in Sneinton, Nottingham, which has been restored and turned into a science centre that you can visit Wednesdays – Sundays. Einstein wanted to visit it in 1930 when he was visiting a friend at Nottingham, but train problems prevented his trip.  Remarkably, Green had very little schooling – just one year – and it’s mysterious how he gained so much knowledge about maths. Only one person educated in maths, John Toplis, is known to have lived in Nottingham at the time. There’s a lunchtime talk on 12 November to explore who may have influenced him.

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About sophiehebden

Science writer and editor, I mostly write about space and fundamental questions in physics.
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