The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   42

The Life and Legacy of G. I. Taylor

by George Batchelor

Cambridge University Press, 1994
Physicists are used to seeing the name of Taylor among the many fossilized eponyms in our literature. What distressingly few of us realize is that almost all of these Taylors, except for that of the Taylor series, are the same Taylor, Geoffrey Ingram, who was (not merely by this criterion) one of the great physicists of the twentieth century, among the last masters of both theory and experiment. Aside from one early experiment on wave mechanics (where he got accurate results, which nobody could make sense of at the time), Taylor had nothing to do with so-called modern physics, with quantum mechanics and relativity, continuing instead the tradition of classical mechanics, particularly fluid mechanics and the theory of plastic (that is, permanently deformable) materials. He pioneered many fields of research which are still active, if not downright huge, and then turned to something else, and something else again, almost always finding simple, elegant and above all practical ways of coming to grips with them. He was, for instance, the originator of the statistical theory of turbulence, and the author of fully a quarter of the papers in the standard collection of seminal papers. Had he not been distracted by war work, he very likely would have scooped Kolmogorov in discovering the turbulent energy cascade (he'd been working on the component ideas since 1917). When, in 1945, he learned of these ideas from a graduate student (Batchelor) and a German prisoner of war (Heisenberg!), he foresaw the highly abstract, un-applied character the theory of turbulence would assume, and turned away from the subject. This is typical of the old British tradition of applied mathematics and mechanics, which he embodied; but a bit amusing in the grandson of George Boole, the founder of mathematical logic.

Batchelor was Taylor's graduate student, and went on to become a noted authority on turbulence in his own right. His biography of his mentor is admiring, and paints a picture almost free from blemishes: but by all accounts Taylor was highly admirable and remarkably naïf. Many eminent scientists have been privileged to lead happy, undramatic, creative lives, and Taylor more so than most (though he and his wife decided to travel a few hundred miles across Borneo in 1929, apparently simply on the grounds that it would be neat, and they were passing through southeast Asia anyway en route to a conference in Japan, which is out of left field, to say the least). Quite properly, therefore, Batchelor puts his emphasis on Taylor's science. Though there are no derivations, this is not a popularization, and one needs a fair amount of physics to get anything out of it, say a first undergraduate course in mechanics. (I have, however, taught some of this material to students taking their first course in physics, with what I like to think was some success.) For many of us, that first course was Goldstein, or some equally abstract and petrified pedagogic horror, and it will come as something of shock to see mechanics take life in Taylor's hands.

Science is not a social vacuum process, and Batchelor describes the medium of formal and informal institutions within which Taylor's work propagated. These were typical of the physical sciences in the first half of the twentieth century: mostly university research labs (the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge --- not too shabby), some government-sponsored research projects (a couple of uncomfortable months at sea in the arctic), national scientific societies (he was an FRS) and international disciplinary communities (he was quite active in creating the international mechanics research community). During the wars he was put to work doing exceedingly practical research for the military: ``World War II was, technically speaking, an exercise in applied classical physics ... on a vast scale, and the profound understanding of mechanics and physics that G. I. possessed fitted him perfectly for the role of consultant on the innumerable problems that arose.'' Some of those problems, having to do with blasts and shock-waves, arose at the base of the Jemez Mountains in New Mexico; like many scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, Taylor had an ``innocent and natural'' reaction to the ``wonderful physics of the bomb,'' and devised a typically ingenious and accurate way of gauging the energy released from the growth of the fireball. (As Batchelor says, ``he was not reflective, and moral or philosophical issues did not often engage his mind.'')

Though there is less in here about institutions and society than most contemporary historians could wish, there is much that is valuable for them, provided they can get along without ruminations on gender encoding in fluid mechanics or the like. The book's main audience, however, is physicists, applied mathematicians and engineers curious about the development of their art, and one of its great practitioners.

xvi + 285 pp., many black and white diagrams and photographs, appendices of Taylor's speech ``An Applied Mathematician's Apology,'' of honors received by Taylor, of articles about Taylor, of Taylor's published and unpublished works (cross-referenced with his Scientific Papers), index
Biography / History of Science / Hydrodynamics / Physics
Currently in print as a hardback, US$100, ISBN 0-521-46121-9, LoC Q 143 T29 B38
30 April 1998