A Rayleigh Miscellany
I enjoyed the Physics History column, "Lord Rayleigh and the Discovery of Argon" in the August/September APS News
, particularly since Rayleigh is a favorite of mine. Rayleigh treated everyone well and would have fit the APS Strategic Plan nicely in his encouragement of women and young physicists. The Rayleigh-Jeans law mentioned in the article is so-called because the young Jeans (just graduated from Cambridge) pointed out an error in Rayleigh's comparison of his blackbody equation with that of Planck's; in Nature
, Rayleigh responds, "I hasten to admit the justice of this correction." Regarding the joint credit for the discovery of argon by Rayleigh and Ramsay, Lady Rayleigh's journal (16 August 1894) says that Rayleigh "thinks Ramsay's cutting in hardly according to scientific etiquette, but did not complain," and Rayleigh suggested joint publication then, as well. One of my favorite quotes is from Rayleigh's Nobel lecture on the discovery of argon: "Argon must not be deemed rare. A large hall may easily contain a greater weight of it than a man can carry."
It may not be widely known that Rayleigh's notebooks, beginning as a student at Cambridge in 1862, reside at the library of the U.S. Air Force Academy, for an interesting reason. Physicists at what is now called the Air Force Research Laboratory used airglow measurements to track the effect of solar activity, but had no data prior to 1950. They learned that Rayleigh's son, the 4th Baron Rayleigh, had made almost daily measurements from 1920 until his death in 1947. They were able to purchase his notebooks in a lot that included those of his more famous father, the final entry being in March of 1919, shortly before Rayleigh died. The collection includes many letters, papers related to invention of a foghorn, the laboratory notebook of Rayleigh's sister-in-law (beginning "Cavendish Laboratory, April 1880"), and a metal box marked "Unpublished MSS of 3rd Lord Rayleigh" in which only a few fragmentary handwritten pages are found.
Foreign to me is the interest in spiritualism, séances, and psychical research of their time. Though skeptical, Rayleigh was President of the Society for Psychical Research in 1919, and his physicist son more passionately in 1937. Toward the end of his life the son gave £1000 to the Society, saying that his gift was more likely to bear fruit in this field than in any of the more orthodox branches of science.