School of Physics & Astronomy

George Green - Mathematician, Physicist and Miller


George Green (14 July 1793–31 May 1841) was a British mathematician and physicist, who wrote An Essay on the Applications of Mathematical Analysis to the Theories of Electricity and Magnetism (Green, 1828). The essay introduced several important concepts, among them a theorem similar to modern Green's theorem, the idea of potential functions as currently used in physics, and the concept of what are now called Green's functions.

The following is taken from a detailed article on Green's life and work written by Lawrie Challis and Fred Sheard, both emeritus professors of physics at the University of Nottingham, and published in Physics Today magazine in December 2003.

Green's life story is remarkable in that he was almost entirely self-taught. He was born and lived for most of his life in the English town of Sneinton, Nottinghamshire, nowadays part of the city of Nottingham. His father (also named George) was a baker who had built and owned a brick windmill used to grind grain. The younger Green only had about one year of formal schooling as a child, between the ages of 8 and 9.

In his adult life, Green worked in his father's mill, taking ownership upon his father's death in 1829. At some point, he began to study mathematics. As Nottingham had little in the way of intellectual resources, it is unclear to historians exactly where Green obtained information on current developments in mathematics. Only one person educated in mathematics, John Toplis, is known to have lived in Nottingham at the time. When Green published his Essay in 1828, it was sold on a subscription basis to 51 people, most of whom were friends and probably could not understand it. Mathematician Edward Bromhead bought a copy and encouraged Green to do further work in mathematics. Not believing the offer was sincere, Green did not contact Bromhead for two years.

Finally, Green contacted Bromhead, who enabled Green to enter Cambridge University. Green entered as an undergraduate in 1833 at age 40. His academic career was excellent, and after his graduation in 1837 he stayed on the faculty at Gonville and Caius College. He wrote on optics, acoustics, and hydrodynamics. However, in 1840 he became ill and returned to Nottingham, where he died the next year.

Green's work was not well-known in the mathematical community during his lifetime. In 1846, Green's work was rediscovered by Lord Kelvin, who popularised it for future mathematicians.

The George Green Library at the University of Nottingham is named after him, and houses the majority of the University's Science and Engineering Collection. In 1986, Green's mill was restored to working order. It now serves both as a working example of a 19th century mill and as a museum and science centre dedicated to George Green.


School of Physics and Astronomy

The University of Nottingham
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