Portal:University of Cambridge/Nominate/Selected biography

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Articles in rotation[edit]

Charles Darwin (circa 1859)

Charles Darwin was an English naturalist who proposed and provided evidence for the theory that all species have evolved over time from a common ancestor through the process of natural selection. This theory came to be accepted by the scientific community in modified form, forming much of the basis of modern evolutionary theory, a cornerstone of biology. Darwin's early interest in nature led him to neglect his course in medicine at Edinburgh University and instead help to investigate marine invertebrates, then the University of Cambridge encouraged a passion for natural science. His five-year voyage on the Beagle established him as a prominent geologist whose observations and theories supported uniformitarianism. Puzzled by the geographical distribution of wildlife and fossils he collected on the voyage, Darwin investigated the transmutation of species and conceived his theory of natural selection in 1838. In 1858, Alfred Russel Wallace sent him an essay describing a similar theory, causing the two to publish their theories in a joint publication. His 1859 book On the Origin of Species established evolution by common descent as the dominant scientific explanation of the diversity of life in nature. (more...)


John Dee. Sixteenth century portrait, artist unknown.

John Dee was a noted British mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, geographer and consultant to Elizabeth I. He also devoted much of his life to alchemy, divination, and Hermetic philosophy. Dee straddled the worlds of science and magic. He studied at St John's College, Cambridge and he was a founding fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, where the clever stage effects he produced for a production of Aristophanes' Peace procured him the reputation of being a magician that clung to him through life. One of the most learned men of his time, he was lecturing to crowded halls at the University of Paris in his early twenties. He was an ardent promoter of mathematics, a respected astronomer and a leading expert in navigation, training many of those who would conduct England's voyages of discovery. At the same time, he immersed himself deeply in Christian angel-magic and Hermetic philosophy, and devoted the last third of his life almost exclusively to these pursuits. For Dee, as for many of his contemporaries, these activities were not contradictory, but aspects of a consistent world-view. (more...)


Title page Certaine Errors in Navigation

Edward Wright (1561–1615) was an English mathematician and cartographer noted for his book Certaine Errors in Navigation, which for the first time explained the mathematical basis of the Mercator projection, and set out a reference table giving the linear scale multiplication factor as a function of latitude, calculated for each minute of arc up to a latitude of 75°. This was the essential step needed to make practical both the making and the navigational use of Mercator charts. He was educated at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. In 1589 Elizabeth I requested that he carry out navigational studies with a raiding expedition organised by the Earl of Cumberland to the Azores to capture Spanish galleons. In 1599, Wright created and published the first world map produced in England and the first to use the Mercator projection since Gerardus Mercator's original 1569 map. He also translated John Napier's pioneering 1614 work which introduced the idea of logarithms. Wright's work influenced, among other persons, Dutch astronomer and mathematician Willebrord Snellius; Adriaan Metius, the geometer and astronomer from Holland; and the English mathematician Richard Norwood. (more...)


Judge Norman Birkett at the bench during the Nuremberg Trials

Norman Birkett, 1st Baron Birkett (1883–1962) was a British barrister, politician and judge. Born in Ulverston, Lancashire, he initially trained to be a Methodist preacher, and attended Emmanuel College, Cambridge to study theology and history. He became President of the Cambridge Union, and after switching to law graduated in 1910. He was called to the Bar in 1913 and developed a reputation as a barrister able to defend people with almost watertight criminal cases against them, such as in the second of the Brighton trunk murders and the Blazing Car murder. He sat as a Member of Parliament for Nottingham East in the 1920s, and was described as "the Lord Chancellor that never was". In 1941, he became a judge of the High Court, and later served as the alternate British judge in the Nuremberg Trials. Unhappy with his time in the High Court, he accepted a position in the Court of Appeal in 1950, but after finding he enjoyed it even less, retired in 1956 when he had served long enough to draw a pension. Following his retirement he was made a hereditary peer, and spoke regularly in the House of Lords. After speaking there in 1962 he collapsed at home, and following a failed operation died aged 78. (more...)


Sir Edward Coke

Edward Coke (1552–1634) was an English barrister, judge and politician considered to be the greatest jurist of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. Educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, he took part in several notable cases as a barrister, including Slade's Case, before being elected to Parliament, where he served as Solicitor General and as Speaker of the House of Commons. As Attorney General he prosecuted Robert Devereux, Sir Walter Raleigh and the Gunpowder Plot conspirators. As Chief Justice of the Common Pleas in the Case of Proclamations and Dr. Bonham's Case, he declared the King to be subject to the law, and the laws of Parliament to be void if in violation of "common right and reason". As Chief Justiceship of the King's Bench, he restricted the definition of treason and declared a royal letter illegal, leading to his dismissal. He returned to Parliament, where he was instrumental in the passage of the Petition of Right, considered one of the crucial constitutional documents of England. In retirement, he finished his Reports and the Institutes of the Lawes of England. (more...)


An Inglis bridge

Charles Inglis (1875–1952) was a British civil engineer who has been described as the greatest teacher of engineering of his time. He was educated at King's College, Cambridge, and then spent two years with the engineering firm run by John Wolfe-Barry before returning to King's College as a lecturer. Working with Professors James Alfred Ewing and Bertram Hopkinson, he made several important studies into the effects of vibration on structures and defects on the strength of plate steel. Inglis served in the Royal Engineers during the First World War and invented the Inglis Bridge, a reusable steel bridging system (example pictured) – the precursor to the Bailey bridge of the Second World War. In 1916 he was placed in charge of bridge design and supply at the War Office and, with Giffard Le Quesne Martel, pioneered the use of temporary bridges with tanks. He returned to Cambridge University after the war as head of the Engineering Department, which became the largest in the university and one of the best regarded engineering schools in the world. Knighted in 1945, he spent his later years developing his theories on the education of engineers and wrote a textbook on applied mechanics. (more...)


James Chadwick

James Chadwick (1891–1974) was an English physicist who was awarded the 1935 Nobel Prize in physics for his discovery of the neutron, and who led the British team that worked on the Manhattan Project during the Second World War to produce atomic bombs. He studied under Ernest Rutherford in Manchester and Hans Geiger in Berlin, where he demonstrated that beta radiation produced a continuous spectrum, not discrete lines as had been thought. He later became Rutherford's assistant director of research at the Cavendish Laboratory of the University of Cambridge. Chadwick's research led to his discovery of the neutron in 1932; he later measured its mass. In 1935 he became a professor at the University of Liverpool, which he made an important centre for the study of nuclear physics. During the Second World War, Chadwick carried out research as part of the Tube Alloys project to build an atomic bomb, and wrote the final draft of the MAUD Report, which inspired the U.S. government to begin serious atomic bomb research efforts. He later served as the British scientific advisor to the U.N. Atomic Energy Commission and as Master of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. (Full article...)


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