Thursday 7 November 2013

Alfred Russel Wallace 1823-1913

Wallace argued that the "drab" peahe...
Alfred Russel Wallace
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Alfred Russel Wallace died 100 years ago today, on 7 November, 1913.

Wallace was primarily a naturalist, but he had a curious mind and was drawn to many academic disciplines, especially controversial new ideas. In particular, Wallace was most renowned for formulating, independently of Charles Darwin, of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Wallace was beset by financial troubles throughout his life. He did not have a wealthy family and he made some unfortunate investment decisions. In addition, he failed to secure any long-lasting salaried position and had to finance himself through the publications he produced.

Wallace's financial difficulties were further compounded by an incident involving a wager, relating to the curvature of the Earth, one of his many forays into the field of mathematics.

John Hampden, a member of the Flat Earth Society, placed an advertisement in a magazine, challenging anybody to prove that there was curvature on the surface of any body of water. He claimed that he would offer a prize of £500 to anybody who could do so. Alfred Russel Wallace, who was short of money at the time, took up the challenge.

His experiment took place along the Old Bedford River in England and it involved setting up two objects at the same height above the surface of the water. At a third point he set up a telescope. The view of the river through the telescope confirmed that the level of the water appeared to dip the further the object was from the telescope, thus confirming the curvature of the Earth.

The referee for the wager judged that Wallace had won, but Hampden refused to accept the fact. He accused Wallace of cheating, published defamatory articles and sued Wallace for return of the money. The legal cases cost Wallace a great deal of money and a huge amount of time and effort.

When he died, aged 90, The New York Times described him as "the last of the giants belonging to that wonderful group of intellectuals that included, among others, Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, Lyell, and Owen, whose daring investigations revolutionised and evolutionised the thought of the century."

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