b. July 27, 1801 – Alnwick, Northumberland, England
d. January 2, 1892 – Greenwich, London, England
Sir George Biddell Airy was an English scientist who made contributions in the fields of astronomy, optics, and geology.
He was born to William Airy, a tax inspector, and Ann Biddell. After his father lost his job in 1813, Airy spent much of his teen years living with his uncle Arthur Biddell, who had a large library of scientific books. With his uncle’s help, he attended Cambridge from 1819 to 1823 as a sizar, meaning he had to work as a servant to help pay his tuition. He graduated at the top of his class.
In 1826 he became Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge, beating out Charles Babbage for the post. It was the beginning of a life-long rivalry between the two men. (In 1828 Charles Babbage succeeded Airy as Lucasian professor in the position.)
In 1827, Airy was the first to successfully correct for astigmatism in the human eye, using a cylindrical eyeglass lens. He also contributed to the study of interference fringes, and the Airy disk is named for him.
In 1828, George Biddell Airy was appointed Plumian professor of astronomy and director of the Cambridge observatory. The salary of £500 that went with the position was enough for him to marry his long-time sweetheart, Richarda Smith, on March 24, 1830. They would have 9 children, although 3 died in childhood. The marriage lasted 45 years, until her death in 1875.
In 1831, Airy won the Copley Medal of the Royal Society for his researches on the diffraction of light through a small aperture, and his complete theory of rainbows.
After working on correcting Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre’s solar tables, Airy suspected an inequality that Delambre had missed. Airy’s calculations confirmed the existence of an irregularity in motion over a 240-year period. This work won him the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1833. More importantly, it led other researchers to locate the planet Neptune, first by mathematical calculation, and then by direct observation, as the cause of the irregularity.
George Airy became Astronomer Royal in 1835, moving from Cambridge to Greenwich, and he held the post until resigning in 1881.
Airy was responsible for many improvements to the facility during his tenure as Astronomer Royal. In 1850, he built the large transit circle telescope, which, in 1851, he used as the spot to define the Prime Meridian. It was adopted as the international standard in 1884. (The current definition of the “International Reference Meridian,” determined by satellite measurements using astronomical radio sources, lies about 100 meters east of the Airy transit.)
He was president of the Royal Society from 1871 – 1873, and he was knighted in 1872.
In 1881 Airy retired, and went to live with two of his daughters near Greenwich. In 1991 he fell down stairs, and died a few days later from his injuries. Sir George Biddell Airy is buried at St. Mary’s Church in Playford, Suffolk next to his wife and three of his children.
“Sir George Biddell Airy.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. 25 Oct. 2010. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/11102/Sir-George-Biddell-Airy>.
“Sir George Biddell Airy.” lucasianchair.org, 1995 – 2007. Web. 27 Oct. 2010. http://www.lucasianchair.org/19/airy.html>.