It was a very warm welcome that Councillor Jayne Callaghan received as the guest speaker at the November monthly society meeting on Thursday 22nd.
Cllr Callaghan has been very prominent in ensuring that the memory and achievements of a remarkable man have been recognised by the community where he was born, Wilsden; and in Keighley, where he was raised and educated.
The man she brought to our attention was Alfred Fowler, CBE, FRAS, 1868 to 1940. She was eminent in the placing of a blue plaque at Moss Row in Wilsden, close to where Alfred was born.
His obituary notice published in the monthly notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, stated that:-
Mr Alfred Fowler who died last June at the age of 72, had a remarkably interesting career. Owing nothing to fortune and as little to influence or self- seeking, he had attained to a position of recognised scientific eminence. A few years later his upward path may have been easier, a few years earlier lack of opportunity would almost certainly have made it altogether impossible.
Besides his advancements in the field of astrophysics, he was the inspiration for later astronomers like Edwin Hubble, who wrote an account of his career on the occasion of Alfred’s award of the Bruce gold medal, by the Astronomical society of the Pacific in April 1934. Apparently a young Edwin Hubble was inspired after receiving a copy of Alfred’s 1896 book ‘Popular telescopic astronomy’ – How to make a 2 inch telescope and what to see with it.
Cllr Callaghan had a 1902 publication of that book to show the society members.
Cllr Callaghan’s research has revealed that his sturdy character and humble upbringing carried him unruffled through the difficulties and disappointments of life, and served him well.
The blue plaque was erected in time for the 150th anniversary of Mr Fowler’s birth, on 22nd March 2018. Crowd funding covered the cost of its manufacture and installation.
Alfred Fowler was born into a poor textile working family, who very early in his life moved to the Parkwood area of Keighley.
Alfred’s infant education took place at Eastwood primary school. He continued his education at Keighley mechanists institute. A neighbour who saw the promising future in him financed his education. Despite such personal tragedies such as the suicide of his father at the family home, at the age of 15 he won a scholarship to attend the National school of Science in south Kensington, London. This school was later absorbed into Imperial collage London.
He was appointed Instructor (later Assistant Professor) of Astrophysics at Imperial College and worked there until his death. He was an expert in spectroscopy, being one of the first to determine that the temperature of sunspots was cooler than that of surrounding regions.
Cllr Callaghan explained that Alfred from the age of 17 worked closely with Sir Norman Lockyer for many years and accompanied him on numerous expeditions to study the solar eclipse. West Africa in 1893, Norway in 1896. India 1898 and to Spain in 1900.
Among his best known contributions to astrophysics was the identification of the Ti0 bands in the spectra of red stars, MgH and other bands in the spectra of Sun spots, and bands of C0 in the spectra of comets tails.
Alfred showed in 1914, as an immediate consequence of the Bohr theory, that the enhanced lines of helium, magnesium and strontium form families of series whose mutual relationships are identical with those of the series found for the arc lines: but the series constant must be given a value four times as great. This meant that the series due to the enhanced lines came from the positive ions of the substances instead of from the neutral atoms. Thus confirming the Bohr theory about the structure of the hydrogen atom.
He was the first to produce in the laboratory, the lines of ionises helium discovered in the spectrum of the star Zeta Puppis. This provided the basic data for the interpretation of the spectra of hot stars.
After Lockyers retirement. Alfred was appointed in 1915 as professor of astrophysics at South Kensington. Alfred continued in research at the Imperial College until his retirement in 1934.
He received many prizes, medals and honorary degrees, among which were the American awards of the Henry Draper gold medal for astrophysics of the National Academy of Sciences and the Bruce Gold Medal as previously mentioned.
In 1938 Alfred was elected a foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1910. In 1935 he was elected a fellow of the Imperial College, and was created CBR for his services to science.
Alfred married the girl who lived next door to his family home in Parkwood, Keighley, had several children and a happy and content personal life. Cllr Callaghan diligently located a living decedent of Alfred who was able to fill in the gaps of knowledge
A contemporary Henry Gale from the University of Chicago wrote in January 1941. Alfred Fowlers work was characterised by such thoroughness, accuracy and conservatism that it stands as a prominent and important part of the sound fundamental basis upon which modern spectroscopy and atomic theories have been built.
Henry Norris Russell (of the Hetrzsprung-Russell diagram fame) said of Alfred. “ Those who knew him will never forget his modest, Kindly demeanour and the quiet way in which he would speak of his most important discoveries”.
Which is why so few in this locality know of the remarkable man from Wilsden.