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The Comedy of Errors

The Dilettante Society on George Green

7 August 15 words: Lady M and F Dashwood
illustrations: Christine Dilks

Those who came across the paper largely dismissed George as an amateur whose ideas were not worth trifling with, leaving his discoveries overlooked for some time.

As children, unburdened by the all too often harsh realities of getting by, we are free to dream up outlandish visions of our future glory. We privately pursue our passions, dedicating our time to the marvel and mastery of our chosen obsession. Yet as we grow into the rhythms, routines and responsibilities of adulthood so many dreams are consigned to hobbies, which themselves often fall by the wayside: beloved guitars gather dust, novels lurk unfinished in notebooks, desires to roam the globe are re-formed into holiday plans. It is all too easy to settle into a life which oneself has not truly chosen.

Yet, while we are said to be products of our society, upbringing or economic circumstances, those who deviate from the expected and persevere with their passions prove another path is indeed possible. Revered mathematician George Green, a self-taught genius from Sneinton, was one such example, who through his own interest, carved his own path from the humdrum of a prescribed life to achieve greatness, largely without even realising he was doing so.

A non-too-extraordinary start, George was born into a reasonably comfortable lower-middle class family in 1793. Fortunate enough to receive a formal education, albeit for only eighteen months, he studied at a local school fairing strongly in the fields of science until the age of nine, when his predestined career called and he entered the world of work at his father’s business. George Green Senior was an established entrepreneur who owned a bakery near the city and went on to build a small mill in Sneinton, paving the way for young George’s inevitable career. Indeed, at the age of fourteen, George moved on from the bakery to become a miller, where it was assumed he would continue the family trade for the rest of his years and settle into an ordinary life.

Romance blossomed with Jane Smith, the daughter of the head miller who lived in the cottage built by the windmill, and together they had seven children, although controversially for the time, the couple were never married. George Green Senior did not think marriage to a miller’s daughter befitting for the son of a prosperous tradesman and landowner, and threatened to disinherit his son should the pair wed.

There was much more to the young miller, and the demands of daily working life and domesticity were not enough to deter his fascination with science and learning which school had instilled in him. His intellectual adventures began in 1823 when he joined the Nottingham Subscription Library located in Bromley House, the hub of studious activity within the city. The library reintroduced George to the world of mathematics and physics, providing encouragement and support in addition to access to the scientific journals which would fuel his academic enthrallment.

Over the following five years, alongside his duties at the mill, George studied intently. For no other obvious reason than an insatiable thirst for knowledge and immense interest in understanding the world around him, George immersed himself in journals on mathematical theory, physics and science whenever he had chance. Evidence suggests he was largely self-taught – certainly his social circles would not have included those educated in scientific realms with whom he could have discussed such subjects and become influenced by, and this isolation from the scientific establishment pervaded George’s intellectual life. He shied away from submitting his papers to established scientific journals of the day, whose submissions came largely from those who were born and bred for academia themselves. Yet, as his passion for mathematics grew, so did his desire to connect with the mathematical community, and in 1828 he self-published his first paper – at his own expense.

Arguably his greatest work, the seventy-pager detailed a new way of using mathematics to analyse and understand electricity and magnetism. Just 51 copies of the publication were sold, most of which to friends and fellow members of the subscription library, who presumably would have fallen short of a full understanding of it. Indeed, it would seem the same could be said of George’s academic contemporaries, for the publication made no great waves within the mathematical community. Those who came across the paper largely dismissed George as an amateur whose ideas were not worth trifling with, leaving his discoveries overlooked for some time.

However, fortune would have it that one copy made it into the hands of Sir Edward Bromhead, a wealthy mathematician and student of Cambridge University who, upon realising the great potential of this unlikely and unrecognised genius, swiftly wrote to urge George to continue his studies and develop his theorems. Yet it would be a long time before this bond would inaugurate George into the mathematical community, for his insecurities over his considerable intellectual talents prevented him from contacting Bromhead for two years, refusing to believe his interest and offers of help were sincere.

Despite this presumed lack of interest in his theories, George did not retire from his studies and he continued his double life as secluded mathematician and local miller. In 1829, a year after publishing his paper and following his father’s death, he inherited the mill and became head of the business, but not for long. By 1833, at forty years old, George finally entered the revered halls of academia and became an undergraduate at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University. His astute observations and unceasing intellectual interest saw him become a fellow of the college, where he continued his research on subjects such as wave motion, the behaviour of light, crystal structure and the elasticity of materials, publishing a variety of papers, this time in recognised scientific journals.

Alas, health problems led Green to leave Cambridge and return to his family with Jane in Nottingham where he died aged 47 years. He is buried at St Stephen’s Church, Sneinton, almost within the shadow of his modest windmill. Like most great thinkers, it was not until after his death that true acclaim was shone on his work. Indeed, when Einstein visited the University of Nottingham in 1930, he stated that Green’s work was very much ahead of its time.

Today, his legacy and contribution to our understanding of the world is undisputed. His mathematics are still widely used under the title Green’s Theorem and Green’s Function by scientists and engineers all over the world working with computers, lasers and satellite communications. Green’s genius is now recognised and his contribution to mathematics honoured with a plaque in the scientist corner at Westminster Abbey.

The Green Windmill has stood high up on Sneinton hillside for over 200 years as an anomaly of Nottingham’s landscape. Now in full working order, complete with an adjoining science centre dedicated to the Greens, it serves as a kind of symbol to both preservation and deviation of tradition. The expectations that our start in life can prescribe to us are not concrete, and it is never too late to excel at something that at first appears unbefitting to you. So next time you’re feeling curious, inspired or even perhaps overly content with the life you have chosen, nip down to the library and get your head in a book. You may find yourself to be a genius too.

The Dilettante Society Meeting, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, Monday 10 August, 7.30pm, free. All welcome – the more the merrier.

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