George Biddell Airy

Born: 27 July 1801 in Alnwick, Northumberland, England
Died: 2 Jan 1892 in Greenwich, England

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George Airy was educated at Cambridge where he was Senior Wrangler (the top First Class student) in 1823. Only three years after graduating from Cambridge, he was appointed Lucasian Professor at Cambridge.

In 1828 Airy was appointed Plumian Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge and Director of the Cambridge Observatory. He was Astronomer Royal from 1835 until 1881.

Airy wrote the text On the Algebraic and Numerical Theory of Errors of Observations and the Combinations of Observations. Although said at the time to be

unreadable except by those already thoroughly acquainted with the subject,
the book was used at Cambridge and influenced Pearson.

Airy's delay, in 1845, of searching for Neptune at the location suggested by Adams prevented Adams obtaining full credit for his work although in many ways he has been unfairly criticised over this episode. Airy made many major contributions to mathematics and astronomy. He improved the orbital theory of Venus and the Moon, studied interference fringes in optics, made a mathematical study of the rainbow and computed the density of the Earth by swinging a pendulum at the top and bottom of a deep mine.

Airy was made chairman of the Commission set up to construct Standard Weights and Measures in 1834. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1836 giving the Bakerian lecture to the Society entitled On the theoretical explanation of an apparent new polarity of light in 1840.

In 1851 Airy was elected President of the British Association, then in 1871 he was elected President of the Royal Society of London holding the post for two years. Soon after this, in 1874, he organised an expedition to observe the transit of Venus.

References (8 books/articles)

References elsewhere in this archive:

Tell me about Airy's work on orbits and gravitation

Tell me about Airy's part in the discovery of Neptune

You can see a comment about Airy's work in engineering.

Airy worked on the Nephroid

George B Airy was elected to the Royal Society of London in 1836. You can see a history of the Royal Society and a list of the members among the mathematicians in our archive.
He was awarded the Royal Medal of the Royal Society in 1845 and the Copley Medal in 1831. You can see a history of the Royal Medal and a list of the winners in our archive and a history of the Copley Medal and a list of the winners.

He was the Royal Society's Bakerian lecturer in 1840. You can see a history of the Bakerian Lectures and a list of the lecturers.

There is a Crater Airy on the moon. You can see a list of lunar features named after mathematicians.

There is also a Crater Airy on Mars. You can see a list of planetary features named after mathematicians.

Other Web sites:


You can see the definition of Airy Functions at University of Virginia, USA

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JOC/EFR October 1997