October 10

Fridtjof Nansen (1861)

It was on this date, October 10, 1861, that Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen was born. He grew up in Frĝen, on the outskirts of Christiania (now Oslo), at that time a rural area that hardened Nansen for his life's work. Nansen loved the outdoors and his parents instilled in him the virtues of integrity, independence and courage.

He entered the University of Christiania in 1880 and studied zoology, taking an "internship" aboard the sealer Viking, giving Nansen his first experience of the Arctic and sealing his future interests. He took his doctorate at Christiana in 1888 and, in that same year, began a successful exploratory crossing of Greenland, vastly increasing scientific knowledge of the interior.

Nansen made a total of three Arctic and two oceanographic expeditions, including a famous voyage on the Fram, and added to his résumé Curator of the Museum of Comparative Anatomy at Christiania University, professor of geology and professor of oceanography there, as well as Norwegian Minister in London (1906-1908). He was also a distinguished humanitarian, promoting the League of Nations and helping in the repatriation of prisoners of war following World War One, and relief efforts during the Russian famine from 1921-1923 and during the Greco-Turkish war in 1922.

Nansen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922, the proceeds of which he redirected to famine relief. The Nansen International Office for Refugees won the Nobel for Peace in 1938. Fridtjof Nansen died on 13 May 1930 at his home near Oslo, while working for disarmament. Like his countryman, the poet and writer Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, he was an Agnostic. In Science and the Purpose of Life, a 1909 lecture published by the British Rationalist Press Association, Nansen says that "the religion of one age is, as a rule, the literary entertainment of the next."

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Henry Cavendish

Henry Cavendish (1731)

It was also on this date, October 10, 1731, that British physicist and pioneer chemist Henry Cavendish was born in Nice, France. The son of Lord Charles Cavendish, and nephew of the Duke of Devonshire, he entered St. Peter's College, Cambridge in 1749 at age 18, but left without graduating four years later. Chambers' Encyclopedia describes Cavendish as a

...silent, solitary man, he had his magnificent library in London, four miles from his residence on Clapham Common, so that he might not encounter persons coming to consult it. His female domestics had orders to keep out of sight, on pain of dismissal. His dinner he ordered daily by a note placed on the hall table.
It seems Cavendish was particularly terrified of women and avoided most social contacts. He did maintain membership in the Royal Society Club and was well respected by his colleagues, but that may have had to do with his wealth — he was, by inheritance, the wealthiest man in England at the time — as much as with his scientific achievements.

Henry Cavendish,
the solitary man.

He published his first paper, Factitious Airs, a meticulous study of the properties of gases, in 1766, when he was 35. He calculated the first accurate composition of the atmosphere, discovered that water is composed of two gases, discovered hydrogen (which he called "inflammable air" — Antoine Lavoisier gave hydrogen its name), and correctly calculated the mean density of the earth..

Henry Cavendish died on 24 February 1810, leaving a large fortune which endowed the Cavendish Laboratory, which is still in operation at Cambridge. Cavendish never went to church. His biographer, George Wilson, in his 1851 Life of Cavendish, says "As to Cavendish's religion, he was nothing at all."*

* George Wilson, The Life of the Hon. Henry Cavendish, London: Cavendish Society, 1851, p. 180.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
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