You are invited to help in crowdfunding a blue plaque in Wilsden to remember a remarkable man and a remarkable life. How did the seventh of eight children of illiterate mill-worker parents become a world- leading Professor of Astrophysics?
Alfred Fowler was born in Wilsden on 22nd March 1868. The expectation was that he and the other children would follow their parents into the textile mills. His parents must have wondered how they produced this prodigy who excelled at maths. When Alfred was four he lost his closest brother and witnessed the effect on his father’s mental health. When he was eight the family moved to Keighley and Alfred flourished at Eastwood School and Keighley Trade & Grammar School. At just fourteen years old he went to London to study at the Normal School of Science (now Imperial College). The day after his eighteenth birthday his father committed suicide. Perhaps it is not surprising that Alfred was quiet and reserved, and that he threw himself into his work with an all-consuming energy. He became assistant to Norman Lockyer, Head of Astrophysics at the college and the Director of the Solar Physics Observatory.
Their work concentrated on Lockyer’s theories about the evolution of stars from nebulae. Alfred focussed on identifying the elements present in the spectra of stars. The light from the sun was photographed using a camera with a prismatic lens which split the light into various bands. The best opportunity for doing this was during an eclipse and they chased eclipses around the world with Alfred becoming an expert at the photography and interpretation of the spectral bands. He also proved that areas of sunspots are cooler than the surrounding areas of the sun.
After Lockyer retired, Alfred was appointed as Head of Astrophysics and started to step out from Lockyer’s shadow. In 1913 Alfred’s meticulous measurement of the spectral lines of hydrogen and helium caused Niels Bohr to revise his calculation of the Rydberg constant in his theory of atomic structure. Spectroscopy gained a sudden prominence and Alfred was a world-leading expert in it.
Award after award was conferred on him: Fellow of the Royal Society in 1910, Valz prize (Paris Academy of Sciences) in 1913, Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in1915, Draper Medal in 1920, Bruce medal in 1932, CBE in 1935.
He was instrumental in setting up the International Astronomical Union and was their first general secretary. Yet he was still a person who shunned the limelight and preferred to be behind the scenes.
And so today Alfred Fowler is all but forgotten. When he died in 1940 a former student and colleague wrote:
“Few men have seen so large a proportion of their work become a common possession of which not many remember the source. He was content that it should be so. His satisfaction came from the consciousness of work well and truly done, that would outlive his own name.”
If you agree that we should not let him remain forgotten, please contribute and be a part of the story.