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George Green

Mathematician, Physicist and Miller

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(baptized July 14, 1793, Sneinton, Nottinghamshire, England—died March 31, 1841, Sneinton), English mathematician who was first to attempt to devise a theory of electricity and magnetism. This work heralded the beginning of modern mathematical physics in Great Britain.

The son of a prosperous miller and a miller by trade himself, Green was almost completely self-taught in mathematical physics; he published his most important work five years before he went to the University of Cambridge at the age of 40. That he was self-taught may explain his unusual methods of solving physical problems.

In his Essay on the Application of Mathematical Analysis to the Theory of Electricity and Magnetism (1828), Green generalized and extended the electric and magnetic investigations of the French mathematician Siméon-Denis Poisson. This work also introduced the term potential and what is now known as Green’s theorem, which is widely applied in the study of the properties of magnetic and electric field potential.

The self-publication of the Essay brought Green to the attention of Sir Edward Bromhead, an influential local benefactor. Bromhead, whose Cambridge friends had included computer pioneer Charles Babbage and astronomer John Herschel, encouraged Green in his work and helped in its dissemination amongst Cambridge mathematicians. In 1832 Green submitted a paper on the laws of equilibrium of fluids to the Cambridge Philosophical Society, and the following year he submitted a paper on the attractions of ellipsoids. These two papers were published in 1833 and 1835, respectively.

In 1833 Green entered the University of Cambridge, from which he graduated (1837) fourth highest in his class in mathematics. He was elected to a fellowship at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, in 1839. He published further papers on hydrodynamics, reflection and refraction of light, and reflection and refraction of sound.