The Sine of Beauty

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Even by the standards of Victorian eccentricity, Francis Galton was an extraordinary figure. His mother was a daughter of Erasmus Darwin — Charles Darwin's grandfather. Despite being a child prodigy — he was discussing Homer's Iliad at the age of six — he did not do well at school, and found it difficult to stick to his medical studies. In 1840, at the age of eighteen, he dropped medicine and went to Trinity College, Cambridge to read mathematics. He lived the typical life of an undergraduate: after three years of drinking, dancing, hiking and doing no work at all, he had a nervous breakdown while preparing for his finals, and left with an ordinary degree.

When Galton was twenty-two his father died, leaving him a substantial fortune. He gave up study and began to travel, in the Middle East, then Scotland, then in South-West Africa. Back in London he published his first book, Narrative of an Explorer in Tropical South Africa (1853). The common thread that was to link all of Galton's varied enthusiasms was already apparent in this book: measurement. During his South African travels, he wanted to determine the precise dimensions of a Hottentot woman's buttocks; since he did not speak her language he resorted to surveying her from a distance, using a theodolite (normally used to survey land); 'this being done', he recorded, 'I boldly pulled out my measuring-tape, and measured the distance from where I was to the place where she stood, and having thus obtained both base and angles, I worked out the results by trigonometry and logarithms.'

From A Guinea Pig's History of Biology by Jim Endersby. Galton's own words are on this page image at the Web site.

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This page contains a single entry by Jocelyn Ireson-Paine published on December 2, 2007 11:24 PM.

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