THE LATE SIR GEORGE STOKES.
Pro TEE EDITOR OF TEE "SpiecTATOR."1 SIR,—It seems not undesirable to supplement the brief notice of the late Sir G. G. Stokes which appeared in the Spectator of .February 7th, and to place upon record a few impressions made by his personality while the remembrance of them is still fresh. This is not the occasion for an appreciation of his scientific work, or for an estimate of its significance and its importance; the pious duty will doubtless be discharged in the obituary notice in which the Royal Society, following its regular custom, will give an account of his life.
His scientific career extended over a period of more than sixty years. It is impossible in a few words to explain its influence, at once profound and far-reaching; yet some indi- cation may be given by recalling the fact that Lord Kelvin, on more than one public occasion, has acclaimed Stokes as his Master. If the records of the Royal Society could be cross-questioned, and if open confessions could be made by the Fellows of that body who published papers in its Transactions during the years when Stokes was its secretary, an amazing tale of assistance and guidance and suggestion would stand in his name. A full account of what Stokes did in this direction is practically impossible; so many of the Fellows have passed away; and his help was given with that quiet yet persistent absence of self-assertion which was so marked a characteristic throughout his life.
His period of most prolific production of scientific papers ended with his acceptance of office in the Royal Society in 1854. After that year he published little as com- pared with his previous activity ; but there. is no doubt that there was the same undiminished activity of mind. The fact seems to have been that he would think things out as far as was possible, and then his thoughts would pass to something new. But if he became content to publish little and at rare intervals, his knowledge and his powers were ever at the service of others ; and his readiness in a wide range of science was remarkable. Two instances may be quoted. Years ago, at one of the Thursday meetings of the Royal Society,, he was privately asked a question connected with what may be called the dynamics of the circulation of the blood; the answer was received by the succeeding Saturday morning in what was effectively a brief memoir upon the subject. The other instance occurred at the meeting of the British Association at Liverpool in 1896. Professor Lenard had undertaken to give an account of his researches on the phenomena which occur outside an exhausted tube traversed by an electrical discharge, and Professor J. J. Thomson, the President of the section, had obtained a promise from Stokes that he would make a few remarks after Professor Lenard. The few remarks were duly made, without a note : they lasted for nearly three-quarters of an hour; and all sub- sequent speculations and explanations about this difficult subject have been influenced by what Stokes then said.
Nor was his readiness to assist others more marked than the considerate quality of his kindness : one instance may serve as a type. Not long ago one of the younger scientific men in Cambridge called upon him to ask for his advice upon a scientific question. Stokes was just going to his lecture, and, in spite of the younger man's urgent request, declared that he would call and discuss the matter after his lecture. He duly came to the rooms in College: before doing so, he had gone to the University library and had selected a number of books upon the subject, and these he had brought with him. A full discussion was then given by Stokes, and proved of the utmost help ; and what remains, above the gratitude for the assistance so unstintedly given, is a remembrance of the great man's simplicity, at once a bewilderment and a charm. In civic politics Stokes was a firm Conservative; in scientific matters he was one of the most unprejudiced and open-minded of men. Any view that was seriously urged by a worker in science would be seriously considered by Stokes, no matter how completely it challenged the ordinarily accepted opinion; and this freedom of his intellect may have had some influence in preserving its freshness. Even so late as last April he wrote a brief paper for the memorial volume associated with the celebration of the centenary of Abel's birth ; and it is an admirable account of some old investigations. The editor of the volume, Professor Mitta.g-Leffier, had been eager to have something from Stokes; he, and others, appreciated what was sent.
Stokes was greatly honoured for his scientific achievements; but any account of him would be inadequate which did not record the respect universally felt for his character and acknowledge its influence. Upright, transparently sincere, without a shadow of suspiciousness, he seemed incapable of conceiving that men are not always animated by the loftiest of motives and are not always perfectly frank and open in their dealings with one another.
A word should be spared for his personal appearance ; happily for those who come after his day, both picture and bust will give a good idea of his beautifully statuesque face and head. And a last word may be devoted to his power of silence: he could talk freely enough, and discuss freely enough, when the spirit moved : but, unchallenged, the spirit could remain still. It was one of the signs of an unusually placid temperament, which must have saved him many frets in life.
Twenty-five years ago Cambridge had a brilliant group of professors in Stokes, Cayley, Adams, and Maxwell. The youngest of them, Maxwell, died in 1879; but the other three continued, the proud possession of the University, honoured in all the ways that are open to a grateful University. Adams died in 1892, and Cayley in 1895: and now Stokes has passed to his rest. He was the last resident survivor of a golden age in Cambridge mathematics, and may justly be regarded as one of the greatest of natural philosophers since Newton. During his life he had received many honours; but there never was a more direct indication of the place of honour he held in the world's esteem than the remarkable gathering in Great St. Mary's Church, assembled to pay him their last tribute of homage and respect.—I am, Sir, &c., F.