Herbert Dingle


Born: 2 August 1890 in Brixton, London, England
Died: 4 September 1978 in Hull, England

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Herbert Dingle's father, James Henry Dingle (born January 1858), died shortly after he was born and his family moved to Plymouth. James Henry Dingle, born in Liskeard, Cornwall, the son of the shoemaker James Henry Dingle (1834-1915) and Rebecca Davy (1834-1919), married Emily Jane Goddard (1864-1942) in Liskeard, Cornwall in 1888. They had two children, Reginald James Dingle (born 24 June 1889, died 27 October 1973) and Herbert Dingle, the subject of this biography. At the time of the 1891 census Reginald was living with his paternal grandparents in Liskeard, Cornwall while Herbert was living with his widowed mother Emily Jane Dingle, his aunt Harriet F Goddard, and his maternal grandparents Joseph and Sophia Goddard in Plymouth. Reginald Dingle became an editor and author, writing books such as Democracy in Spain (1905) and Russia's Work in France (1938).

Herbert was not able to finish school and started working as a clerk at age 14. Dingle kept studying on his own, however, and earned a Royal Scholarship for Physics at Imperial College of Science and Technology, London, in 1915 at age 25. In 1918, he graduated, having become a Demonstrator in the Physics Department.

Also in 1918, he married Alice Westacott, with whom he had a son. Alice died in 1947 and Dingle never remarried. Their son became an industrial chemist, but died before his father.

Studying under R H Fowler, Dingle became interested in spectroscopy and its applications to astronomy. He researched the spectra of ionised and doubly ionised fluorine, iron and mercury. In 1922 he became a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. Soon after, in 1924, he published Modern Astrophysics, which was one of the first books on the subject. He begins the Preface as follows:-

A science in its infancy is the least satisfactory, and, at the same time, the most profitable theme for a general description. It is the leas satisfactory because its conclusions - if we can call them conclusions are, at the best, little more than tentative summaries of observed facts, liable at any moment to be superseded by wider generalisations: the inconsequential playfulness of childhood has not given place to the graver consistency of mature age. It is the most profitable theme because it has not yet lost the quickening inspiration that alone can produce great things. It is in touch with the poetry and romance that go side by side with all true science. In its eyes still shines "the light that never was on sea or land." This book I intended primarily for the general public. The subject of Astrophysics is presented as a panorama, seen from a detached point of view with vision characterised by breadth rather than by acuteness. An attempt has been made also to convey indirectly to the reader something of the emotions of the practical worker - something of the strange mixture of enthusiasm and wonder, assurance and distrust, eagerness and fear; of amazement at the splendour of his achievements, and humiliation at their meanness; of delight in his knowledge, and disgust at his ignorance; of confidence for the future, and shuddering at its difficulties; in short, of the "divine despair," that agitates the breast of the modern astrophysicist when he surveys the untrodden land into which he has pierced.
He also collaborated on The Splendour of the Heavens (1923) and The Life and Work of Sir Norman Lockyer (1929). Dingle participated in two failed expeditions to observe the Sun's spectrum during a total solar eclipse: the first in 1927 to Colwyn Bay when there was complete cloud cover and rain, and the second in 1932 to Montreal when again it was cloudy. In 1940, a third expedition was cancelled due to the outbreak of the Second World War. He became head of the spectroscopy section at Imperial College after Fowler retired in 1935, and later was appointed to the chair of Natural Philosophy in the Physics Department in 1937.

Dingle also showed an early interest in relativity. He wrote Relativity for All in 1922, in which he explained the subject (which was considered highly specialised at the time) in simple terms. In 1932, during a stay in the California Institute of Technology, he met Albert Einstein and contributed to R C Tolman's textbook Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology.

Dingle had a great interest in the philosophy of science. On this subject, he published Science and Human Experience (1931), Through Science to Philosophy (1937), the latter of which was based on his Lowell Lectures at Harvard, in 1936. His philosophy can be described as following the tradition of British empiricism. He believed that true scientific knowledge could only be obtained by first collecting data and then, and only then, elaborating a hypothesis using said data. This is what is often referred to as the inductive method.

For extracts from reviews to these two books, as well as many other books by Dingle, see THIS LINK.

Because of his philosophical ideas, Dingle clashed with some modern approaches to the study of cosmology. This culminated in 1937, in an article in Nature titled Modern Aristotelism. In it he criticised Milne (and on a lesser note Eddington and Dirac) for employing a hypothetico-deductive method, in which a hypothesis is first created and then corroborated by correctly implied observations, instead of an inductive method. Dingle went so far as to say that Milne's method was completely separate from reality, and called it a treachery to Newton's methods. He wrote in Modern Aristotelism:-

Instead of the induction of principles from phenomena we are given a pseudo-science of invertebrate cosmology, and invited to commit suicide to avoid the need of dying.
This was controversial and occasioned a special fifteen-page supplement of Nature (12 June 1937, No. 3528) in which sixteen scientists responded to Dingle's article, among which were Milne, Eddington and McCrea. The debate helped shape the future methods of the study of the cosmos, as well as clarify the relation between mathematical deduction and physical experiments. Dingle's ideas eventually faded away and are not widely accepted today, while Milne's method became the norm (Milne was awarded the James Scott prize in 1943 and became the President of the Royal Astronomical Society in the same year).

Dingle published the book Through Science to Philosophy (1937) in which he continued to put forward the ideas of his Modern Aristotelism article. Arthur Eddington, in a review of book, writes [18]:-

... Dingle scarcely recognises the existence of a route by which the scientific study of the universe has, through its own practical development, independently reached conclusions comparable with those of philosophy. Dingle rather goes out of his way to give the impression that his hand is against every man. Doubtless some of his contentions will arouse opposition; but his insistent magnification of imperceptible differences seems to me exaggerated. At the outset he assumes the role of protector of the plain reader bewildered by paradoxical utterances of scientific experts ... we are given an "extraordinary miscellany of absurdities" collected from Dirac, Eddington, Planck, Bohr and Jeans.
The criticism that he received seemed only to encourage Dingle to double his efforts in putting his ideas across. He published The Special Theory of Relativity (1940) which was reviewed by Gerald James Whitrow (1912-2000) who writes [54]:-
Dingle seems to have missed the main point of the theory, which is that classical kinematics needs to be replaced by a new kinematics rigorously derived from precise concepts of length and time. It is not sufficient merely to tinker with our ordinary intuitive ideas. Because he appreciated this vital epistemological point, Einstein was the first to grasp the inner meaning of the Lorentz formulae and thereby to make a fundamental advance. It would seem that Dingle is still living in the afterglow of pre-Einstein physics, for his methods are intrinsically of a similar type to those of FitzGerald and Lorentz.
During the Second World War, Dingle was in charge of the Physics Department at Imperial, in the absence of Sir George Thompson. After the war, he became Professor and Head of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at University College London, a position he held from 1946 to 1955. He was elected President of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1951. This was a surprise for him, since he was no longer active in spectroscopy and astrophysics. He previously had been Chairman of the Library Committee for several years, as well as Secretary from 1929 to 1933. In 1953, he used his presidential address to criticise the view of some theoretical cosmologists.

He also became President of Commission 41 (History of Astronomy) at the International Astronomical Union and a Vice-President of the International Union for the History of Science. He was one of the founders of the British Society for the History of Science, which he presided from 1955 to 1957. In 1948, he founded the Philosophy of Science Group within it, which later became the British Society for the Philosophy of Science. He was also the founder of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science (1950). Nineteen of Dingle's essays on the history and philosophy of science were published in 1952 under the title The Scientific Adventure. Here is an extract from the book:-

It is a common complaint among the educated, but not professionally scientific, public that the physics of this century has become absurd.... It is worth an effort to see why physics, which in fact has never become irrational, can appear as though it had. I believe the root cause is that in this century a change has come over the metaphysics that underlies the physicist's practice and that he is largely unconscious of this fact. The change I speak of is from a view that regards physics as a study of the nature of an external world to a view that regards it as an attempt to find rational relations between the elements of our experience. The older physicist believed in Nature and thought of himself as making experiments to see what She was like. She was there whether he could observe her or not. But the modern physicist thinks first of all of what he observes in his experiments and is not interested in anything that he cannot possibly observe. He looks for relations between his observations and ignores everything else. But he still expresses his results as though they were discoveries of the essence of Nature, because he is so used to this way of speaking that he does not realise that his discoveries no longer conform to it. When they are expressed as the characteristics of a world existing outside us and independently of us, which causes our experience by its impact on our sense organs, these discoveries require such a world to have contradictory properties. Hence, by retaining this form of expression, the physicist finds himself presenting his perfectly rational achievements as though they were nonsensical.
This book certainly made interesting reading and led to many reviews. We list extracts for fourteen of these reviews at THIS LINK.

Throughout his life, Dingle held a great appreciation for English literature. As a result, his writing was literary in style and he was able to clearly explain his position, as well as criticise those he disagreed with. He wrote some books on literature, mainly Science and Literary Criticism (1949) and The Mind of Emily Brontë (1974).

He dedicated his last twenty years to a controversial campaign against the validity of special relativity. In particular he pointed out what he believed were problems behind the clock (or twins) paradox. The paradox states that if two clocks, say A and B, start with the same time and one of the two travels at a high speed before returning, a difference between the times marked by the two clocks appears. However, according to Dingle [1]:-

The question therefore arises: how does one determine, consistently with the theory, which clock works the more slowly? Unless this question is answerable, the theory unavoidably requires that A works more slowly than B and B more slowly than A - which it requires no super-intelligence to see is impossible.
His discussion with W H McCrea in the correspondence columns of Nature created controversy and sparked interest in the paradox. Nevertheless, Dingle, not satisfied with the discussion, wrote Science at the Crossroads (1972), where he reinstated his questions about the paradox, considering they had been avoided by critics. Whitrow explains in Dingle's obituary [53] that these difficulties can be resolved by rejecting Dingle's assumption that the 'rates' of the clocks are invariant, which is equivalent to adopting Newton's concept of universal time (something incompatible with special relativity). Whitrow also writes in his review of Science at the Crossroads [55]:-
Two experts in relativity who cannot be accused of failing to consider Dingle's argument are Professor J L Synge and, as already mentioned, Professor McCrea. After a lengthy correspondence, Synge concluded that the contradiction described by Dingle is due to the incompatibility of special relativity with "the concept of clocks that run regularly, as understood by Professor Dingle". McCrea's rejection of Dingle's argument was based, inter alia, on his contention that Dingle had invoked the notion of distant simultaneity which is illegitimate in special relativity.
In 1972 a paper in Volume 177 of Science reported on an experimental verification of the twin paradox:-
Four cesium beam clocks flown around the world on commercial flights during October 1971, once eastward and once westward, recorded directionally dependent time differences which are in good agreement with predictions of conventional relativity theory. Relative to the atomic time scale of the U.S. Naval Observatory, the flying clocks lost 59 ± 10 nanoseconds during the eastward trip and gained 273 ± 7 nanoseconds during the westward trip, where the errors are corresponding standard deviations. These results provide an unambiguous empirical resolution of the famous clock "paradox" with macroscopic clocks.
Now it is important to make the point that there remains controversy on points raised by Dingle. For example Harry H Ricker III argues "Herbert Dingle was correct!", see [43], [44] and [45].

W A Smeaton writes [48]:-

As well as being a writer with a fine command of English, he was a brilliant lecturer and a witty conversationalist. I shall never forget that I was instructed, entertained, occasionally irritated, and frequently inspired by Herbert Dingle, at first as an undergraduate at Imperial College and later as a postgraduate student and as a friend.
G J Whitrow writes [53]:-
All his writings were graced by a clear and beautiful literary style and like his conversation often revealed a rapier-like wit. Despite his reputation for polemics, he was a kind and friendly man. Both he and his wife, who died in 1947, generously assisted refugees from Europe in the nineteen-thirties.
Dingle died in Hull, at 88 years of age.

Article by: I J Falconer, J G Mena, J J O'Connor, T S C Peres, E F Robertson, University of St Andrews.


List of References (57 books/articles)

Mathematicians born in the same country

Additional Material in MacTutor

  1. Reviews of Herbert Dingle's books

Other Web sites
  1. MathSciNet Author profile
  2. zbMATH entry
  3. ERAM Jahrbuch entry

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