James Gregory tercentenary

The tercentenary of James Gregory was celebrated during the Edinburgh Mathematical Society's St Andrews Colloquium in July 1938. As part of the celebrations, the University of St Andrews conferred honorary degrees on Tuesday 5 July 1938. They released the following Press announcement:


The tercentenary of James Gregory, F.R.S. (1638-1675), the famous Scottish mathematician and astronomer, was celebrated at St Andrews University yesterday, when the honorary degree of LL.D. was conferred upon a number of distinguished mathematicians. The ceremony was held in the Upper Hall of the University Library, and among those present were the following delegates from learned societies:- Royal Society of Edinburgh, Dr A C Aitken; Royal Society of London, Professor E T Whittaker; London Mathematical Society, Professor J M Whittaker; Institute of Physics, Professor T Alty; Royal Astronomical Society, London, Professor W H H Greaves; Edinburgh Mathematical Society, Mr George Lawson; Institution of Civil Engineers, Dr David Anderson; University of Cambridge, Professor E Cunningham; University of Oxford, Professor E T Copson; University of Glasgow, Professor T M MacRobert; University of Aberdeen, Professor E M Wright; University of Edinburgh, Professor Max Born; Educational Institute of Scotland, Mr Harry Blackwood.

Principal Sir James C Irvine, who presided, extended a welcome to the guests. In one sense, he said, it was a domestic occasion, but they were proud to think that their commemoration was shared by so many distinguished guests. Their presence was a great stimulus, and if they entered the room as guests he would like them to feel that they would remain as friends. It was most fitting that the oration should be delivered by Professor Turnbull, whose privilege it was to occupy the Chair which Gregory himself once adorned, and who had given much time and thought to the intimate study of Gregory's life and work.


Professor H W Turnbull, Regius Professor of Mathematics at the University, in his oration on Gregory, recalled the scientist's birth at Drumoak, Deeside, his graduation at Marischal College, and his sojourns to Italy and London. He was later nominated first occupant of the new Chair of Mathematics at St Andrews established by Charles II. "Here stands his own pendulum clock," said Professor Turnbull, pointing to the clock in the hall. "It was made by Joseph Knibb, of London, with its large dial curiously divided into 60 parts for the seconds, a reminder that only a few years before Huygens had discovered the secret of the pendulum. This was indeed one of the very earliest clocks to be constructed in England or Scotland.

"Across the floor runs the meridian line, slightly askew, but truly north and south. The floorboards have perished upon which the original line was marked, but the position has been preserved. It points to the iron bracket firmly fixed to the wall beside the window upon which Gregory mounted his quadrant or his telescope. The instruments have long disappeared, but the bracket still carries the screw adjustment whereby Gregory brought the axis to a true level. "A mile away, behind a thicket of trees on the hilltop, there stands an iron trident affixed to a tall stone. In those days the hilltop was bare, and Gregory placed the trident in full view of this window, in order to make his transit observations. How carefully he awaited the eclipse of April 9, 1670, which had been foretold by another young enthusiast, Flamsteed, of Derby, and what was his disappointment when that very day a mighty snowstorm swept all Scotland! We can share his joy one night four years later, when he and his friends in Paris made simultaneous observations of a lunar eclipse which enabled him to work out the longitude of St Andrews, a difficult feat in days before the invention of the chronometer."


It was at St Andrews, continued the Professor, that Gregory first learned, through a letter of Collins, about the geometrical methods of Barrow, the Lucasian Professor at Cambridge, and the analytics of his still more wonderful pupil, Isaac Newton, to whom Barrow relinquished his Chair. It was there Gregory also learned of the fame that the reflecting telescope brought to Newton, and of his remarkable discoveries in light. All of that acted as so much fuel to kindle his own genius into activity. The climax to that creative activity occurred in the first fortnight of February 1671, when he hit on one of the most important theorems in all mathematics, and thereby anticipated Brook Taylor, to whom it is attributed, by over 40 years. Although Gregory withheld the actual method, he sent the results to Collins in a letter dated 15th of February 1671, but, wonderful fortune, the actual rough notes which led to those results were there upon the blank sheets of a letter written on the 30th of January by one Gideon Shaw, a bookseller, who lived at the foot of the Ladies' Steps, Edinburgh. "These rough notes, written, who knows (?) in this very room, are the silent, but inevitable witness giving Gregory the right to take his place with Barrow, Newton, and Leibniz as a principal discoverer of the differential calculus"; indeed, in this one aspect of the subject he attained a result which neither of the others is known to have found.


Yet Gregory, never published this, his crowning achievement; for, on learning from Collins that Newton had in actual date anticipated him, and modestly assuming that Newton had attained as far as he himself, Gregory decided to withhold his work until his young rival had published his own, which did not, in fact, take place until many years after the death of Gregory.

As he waited for Newton to break the silence, Gregory turned once more to astronomy. There, beyond the boundary wall of the College grounds, once stood a small building, Gregory's observatory. It was the first of its kind in England or Scotland, and it remained until about a hundred years ago, when the old Lade Braes path was widened, and it was demolished. Whether Gregory ever worked in it we did not know; probably he left St Andrews for his Edinburgh Chair before the project was fulfilled.


Professor Turnbull said that the old letters, upon the back of which Gregory wrote his rough notes during the seven years spent at St Andrews and Edinburgh, passed into the possession of his family, and were carefully treasured; but after many years they were lost, to be found again by Sir Peter Scott Lang, who, a successor two centuries later in the Chair of James Gregory, presented them to that Library. Those papers, which contained vivid historical matter, written by Collins, together with some fifty rough notes of Gregory, had lately been deciphered. The work was begun by Mr John Smith and continued by the present librarian and himself (Professor Turnbull.) During the last six years it had been a rare privilege as line upon line, here a little, there a little, the mathematics of Gregory were disclosed; once more to share first his groping thoughts to laugh with him at his mistakes, to disagree one day and next to find him right after all to be thrilled, at finding that this, his shattered masterpiece, could after 260 years be restored.


The honorary graduands were presented by Professor H J Rose, of the Chair of Greek, the LL.D. degrees being conferred by Principal Sir James Irvine. The graduands were:-

Professor George David Birkhoff, A.M., Ph.D., Sc.D., Harvard University, U.S.A.

Professor Arthur William Conway, M.A., D.Sc., F.R.S., University College, Dublin.

Dr Otto Neugebauer, Copenhagen University, Denmark.

Professor Roland Weitzenbock, Ph.D., Amsterdam University, Holland.

Professor Vito Volterra, Ph.D., D.Maths., D.Phys., D.Sc., Rome.

Professor Rose intimated that Professor Volterra was not able to get further than Paris on his journey to St Andrews, as he was stricken with illness. The degree was accordingly conferred in absentia. Addresses of congratulation were presented to Principal Sir James Irvine on behalf of the Royal Society of London, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the University of Edinburgh, and the Edinburgh Mathematical Society. The guests were entertained to lunch, and in the evening a reception was held in St Salvator's Hall. An exhibition was held in the Parliament Hall of the University Library of, books and scientific instruments associated with Gregory.

JOC/EFR November 2007

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