Sunday, 18 December 2011

School days

I visited my old school last week. Or rather, I went to the site. My old school is now a few miles away from where it was when I went there and the site has been turned into a Sixth Form College but there is still enough of the old school present to bring back memories.

But it's not the memories but the name that is important here. My school was named after a scientist who inspired and influenced Galileo. It is named after Colchester resident and Royal physician William Gilberd (1544-1603).

Gilberd, or Gilbert, is known for his book De Magnete which studies the properties of magnets. To us that's child's play.  Simple little experiments into attraction, repulson and force fields are done in schools around the world daily.  The point is, Gilberd was the first to put together a book based largely on experimental results.  It was that which inspired Galileo.  Gilberd is one of the first scientists.

Although the book is about magnetism, Gilberd was actually searching for something much bigger.  He wanted to establish the truth of Copernicus's model of the Solar System and was searching for something to make the model work.  He didn't really achieve that but he did found something perhaps more important.

Magnetism has a much more useful sibling: electricity.  Gilberd studied what he could of electricity, static electricity in those days, and gave us its name.  Someone else would have come along and studied static but no doubt there would have been a different name.  Gilberd stands on the cusp of the modern scientific world.  He would be truly astonished, but also fascinated, by what electricity and magnetism has given us.  But for modern electromagnetic wonders, we need to thank Michael Faraday.

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