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About George Green

George Green was a pioneer in the application of mathematics to physical problems. Latimer Clark, a nineteenth century historian of electricity, described Green’s essay of 1828 as ‘one of the most important works ever written on electricity’; and Sir Edmund Whittaker in his authoritative ‘History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity’, states that ‘it is no exaggeration to describe George Green as the real founder of the “Cambridge School” of natural philosophers of whom Kelvin, Stokes, Lord Rayleigh and Clerk Maxwell were the most illustrious members in the latter half of the nineteenth century’. Remarkably George Green was the son of a miller (George Green Senior) from Sneinton (at the time a village about one mile from Nottingham) who as a child had only four terms of formal education.

At the age of nine George Green went to work at the bakery that was part of his father's mill and it would seem that he continued mathematical and scientific study on his own, possibly with the aid of a tutor. There he also became acquainted with his lifelong partner, Jane Smith, daughter of the mill manager (he fathered seven illegitimate children by her from 1824 to 1840).George Green

In 1828 Green published privately, through the Nottingham Subscription Library, his first and most important paper: "An Essay on the Application of Mathematical Analysis to the Theories of Electricity and Magnetism." Fifty one individuals "subscribed" to this publication, but few of them could have understood any of it. However, one of these subscribers, Sir Edward Ffrench Bromhead, had contributed an article on calculus to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, and recognized the worth of the essay. Green had enough money on the occasion of his father's death in 1829 to dedicate more time to mathematics, shortly producing another paper, this one on fluid equilibrium. Bromhead and Green were in communication, and eventually met, so that Bromhead helped Green have the second and a subsequent paper published by the Cambridge Philosophical Society. In 1833, we find Green, at the age of forty, arriving at Cambridge to begin undergraduate studies at Gonville and Caius College. He completed his B. A. by 1838, and became a Fellow of the College, but ill health forced him to retreat to Nottingham, where he died in 1841. The cause of his death was listed as influenza, but biographer Mary Cannell suspects "miller's disease," a condition caused by the flour and dust present in a mill, and analogous to lung disease afflicting coal miners. Other accounts wonder if excessive alcohol consumption might have contributed to his demise. Green's total output consisted of ten papers on mathematical analysis of electricity and magnetism, and of wave motion of fluids, sound, and light. The all-important Essay of 1828 was little known until rediscovered in 1845 by William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin), who arranged to have it republished in three parts in Crelle's Journal (1850, 1852, and 1854).

The scale of Green’s influence on modern physics is also remarkable. For example, in 1948 Julian Schwinger, who had been using Green’s functions in his wartime work on radar, used them for the first time to solve a problem in quantum mechanics. The problem related to quantum electrodynamics (how light interacts with electrons) and Schwinger shared a Nobel Prize with Feynman and Tomonaga for solving it. Another Nobel Prize winner, Robert Schrieffer (theory of superconductivity), wrote “I have, in most of my scientific publications, dealt in one way or another with the techniques of Green’s functions...Not only are Green’s functions of great significance to the theoretical physicist in the solution of physical problems, these functions are directly related to physical observations in the laboratory. Almost every experiment which weakly probes a physical system can be described in terms of the relevant Green’s function for this observation. Thus the theoretical physicist has a direct link to the experimental results through the work of George Green.’

We acknowledge with gratitude the work of D.M. Cannell, prefaced by Professor Lawrie Challis in the book “George Green Mathematician and Physicist 1793-1841”, published by Athlone Press, 1993.

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