Harold Jeffreys

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This article is not about William H. Jefferys, also both an astronomer and a Bayesian.
Sir Harold Jeffreys
Harold Jeffreys, Sir.jpg
Born (1891-04-22)22 April 1891
Died 18 March 1989(1989-03-18) (aged 97)
Fields Mathematics
Alma mater Armstrong College
Doctoral students Herman Bondi[1]
Sydney Goldstein
Vasant Huzurbazar
Philip James Message
Andrew Young[2]
Notable awards Adams Prize (1926)
Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1937)
Fellow of the Royal Society (1925)[3]
Murchison Medal (1939)
Royal Medal (1948)
William Bowie Medal (1952)
Guy Medal (Gold, 1962)
Vetlesen Prize (1962)
Wollaston Medal (1964)
Spouse Bertha Swirles
Plaque to Sir Harold Jeffreys, Newcastle University

Sir Harold Jeffreys, FRS[3][4] (22 April 1891 – 18 March 1989) was an English mathematician, statistician, geophysicist, and astronomer. His book Theory of Probability, which first appeared in 1939, played an important role in the revival of the Bayesian view of probability.[5][6]


Jeffreys was born in Fatfield, Washington, County Durham, England, the son of Robert Hal Jeffreys, headmaster of Fatfield Church School, and his wife, Elizabeth Mary Sharpe.[7] He was educated at his father's school then studied at Armstrong College in Newcastle upon Tyne, then part of the University of Durham, and with the University of London External Programme.[8]


Jeffreys became a fellow of St John's College, Cambridge in 1914. At the University of Cambridge he taught mathematics, then geophysics and finally became the Plumian Professor of Astronomy.

He married another mathematician and physicist, Bertha Swirles (1903–1999), in 1940 and together they wrote Methods of Mathematical Physics.

One of his major contributions was on the Bayesian approach to probability (also see Jeffreys prior), as well as the idea that the Earth's planetary core was liquid.[9] He was knighted in 1953.

By 1924 Jeffreys had developed a general method of approximating solutions to linear, second-order differential equations, including the Schrödinger equation. Although the Schrödinger equation was developed two years later, Wentzel, Kramers, and Brillouin were apparently unaware of this earlier work, so Jeffreys is often neglected when credit is given for the WKB approximation.[10]

Jeffreys received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1937, the Royal Society's Copley Medal in 1960, and the Royal Statistical Society's Guy Medal in Gold in 1962. In 1948, Jeffreys received the Prix Charles Lagrange from the Académie royale des Sciences, des Lettres et des Beaux-Arts de Belgique.[11]

From 1939 to 1952 he was established as Director of the International Seismological Summary further known as International Seismological Centre.

The textbook Probability Theory: The Logic of Science, written by the physicist and probability theorist Edwin T. Jaynes, is dedicated to Jeffreys. The dedication reads, "Dedicated to the memory of Sir Harold Jeffreys, who saw the truth and preserved it."

It is only through an appendix to the third edition of Jeffreys' book Scientific Inference that we know about Mary Cartwright's method of proving that the number π is irrational.

Opposition to continental drift and plate tectonics[edit]

Like most of his contemporaries, Jeffreys was a strong opponent of continental drift as proposed by Alfred Wegener. For him, continental drift was "out of the question" because no force even remotely strong enough to move the continents across the Earth's surface was evident.[12] As geological and geophysical evidence for continental drift and plate tectonics mounted in the 1960s and after, to the point where it became the unifying concept of modern geology, Jeffreys remained a stubborn opponent of the theory to his death.

Honours and awards[edit]

  • Fellow, Royal Society, 1925[3]
  • Adams Prize, 1927 (Constitution of the Earth)
  • Gold Medal, Royal Astronomical Society, 1937
  • Buchan Prize, Royal Meteorological Society, 1929
  • Murchison Medal of Geological Society (Great Britain) 1939
  • Victoria Medal, Royal Geographical Society, 1941
  • Lagrange Prize, Brussels Academy, 1948
  • Royal Medal, 1948
  • William Bowie Medal, American Geophysical Union, 1952
  • Knighted, 1953
  • Copley Medal, Royal Society, 1961
  • Vetlesen Prize, 1962


  • The Earth, Its Origin, History and Physical Constitution, Cambridge University Press, 1924; 5th edn. 1970; 6th edn. 1976
  • Operational Methods in Mathematical Physics, Cambridge University Press, 1927[13]
  • The Future of the Earth, Norton & Company, c. 1929
  • Scientific Inference, Macmillan, 1931; 2nd edn. 1937;[14] 3rd edn. 1973
  • Cartesian Tensors. Cambridge University Press 1931;[15] 2nd edn. 1961
  • Ocean Waves and Kindred Geophysical Phenomena, with Vaughan Cornish, Cambridge University Press, 1934
  • Earthquakes and Mountains, Methuen, 1935; 2nd edn. 1950
  • Theory of Probability, 1939;[16] 3rd edition, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1961
  • Methods of Mathematical Physics, with Bertha S. Jeffreys. Cambridge University Press 1946;[17] 2nd edn. 1950; 3rd edn. 1956 with reprintings
  • Asymptotic Approximations, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1962
  • Nutation and Forced Motion of the Earth's Pole from the Data of Latitude Observations, Macmillan, 1963
  • Collected Papers of Sir Harold Jeffreys on Geophysics and Other Sciences, Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, 1971–77


  1. ^ Roxburgh, I. W. (2007). "Hermann Bondi 1 November 1919–10 September 2005: Elected FRS 1959". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 53: 45–61. doi:10.1098/rsbm.2007.0008. 
  2. ^ Harold Jeffreys at the Mathematics Genealogy Project
  3. ^ a b c Cook, A. (1990). "Sir Harold Jeffreys. 2 April 1891–18 March 1989". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 36: 302–326. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1990.0034. 
  4. ^ "Errata: Sir Harold Jeffreys. 2 April 1891–18 March 1989". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 37: 491–426. 1991. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1991.0025. 
  5. ^ Jaynes, E. T. (2003). Probability Theory: The Logic of Science. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-59271-2. 
  6. ^ O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "Harold Jeffreys", MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews .
  7. ^ BIOGRAPHICAL INDEX OF FORMER FELLOWS OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF EDINBURGH 1783 – 2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0 902 198 84 X. 
  8. ^ "Papers and Correspondence of Sir Harold Jeffreys". Retrieved 17 September 2008. 
  9. ^ Bolt, B. A. (1982). "The Constitution of the Core: Seismological Evidence". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences. 306 (1492): 11–20. Bibcode:1982RSPTA.306...11B. doi:10.1098/rsta.1982.0062. 
  10. ^ Igorʹ Vasilʹevich Andrianov; Jan Awrejcewicz; L. I. Manevitch; Leonid Isaakovich Manevich (2004). Asymptotical mechanics of thin-walled structures. Berlin: Springer-Verlag. p. 471. ISBN 3-540-40876-2. 
  11. ^ http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/vetlesen/recipients/1962/jeffreys_bio.html
  12. ^ Lewis, Cherry (2002). The dating game: one man's search for the age of the Earth. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 159. ISBN 0-521-89312-7. 
  13. ^ Uhler, Horace Scudder (1929). "Review: Operational methods in mathematical physics, by H. Jeffreys". Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 35 (6): 882–883. doi:10.1090/s0002-9904-1929-04822-5. 
  14. ^ Struik, D. J. (1939). "Review: Scientific inference by H. Jeffreys". Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 45 (3): 213–215. doi:10.1090/s0002-9904-1939-06947-4. 
  15. ^ Taylor, J. H. (1933). "Review: Cartesian tensors, by H. Jeffreys". Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 39 (9): 661. doi:10.1090/s0002-9904-1933-05715-4. 
  16. ^ Dodd, Edward L. (1940). "Review: Theory of probability, by H. Jeffreys". Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 46 (9, Part 1): 739–741. doi:10.1090/s0002-9904-1940-07280-5. 
  17. ^ Synge, J. L. (1948). "Review: Methods of mathematical physics, by H. Jeffreys and B. S. Jeffreys". Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 54 (3): 300–303. doi:10.1090/s0002-9904-1948-08974-1. 

Further reading[edit]

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