William Hopkins was a renowned mathematician and geologist from Britain who penned the book ‘Elements of Trigonometry’. Born to an agricultural household, Hopkins was expected to fall in line with the family business. But as destiny would have it, he sold his patch of farmland and used the money to start anew. Having dropped out of school, as his family did not value education, William decided to pursue further studies from the reputed ‘Cambridge University’. Despite his restricted formal education, he was among one of the top ten scorers in the Mathematical Tripos examination. Unable to obtain a fellowship, this brilliant student started out as a tutor for aspirants of ‘Senior Wrangler’, the highest achievement attainable by a mathematics undergraduate. He achieved immense success in his endeavour and was even hailed as ‘senior wrangler maker’. Later he pursued study of mathematics and displaying his prowess in the subject he came out with a highly sought after publication on trigonometry. His association with Adam Sedgwick, whom he accompanied on several expeditions, led to a life-long study of geology. Hopkins set about studying the occurrence of faults and fissures on the Earth’s surface, and then explored the rotation of earth. His investigations were praised by the Geological Society of London and eventually he went on to become the President of the committee. Read on to know more about his life and works.
Childhood & Early Life
William Hopkins was the son of a gentleman farmer, who rented his farmland to others and earned a share of the produce or profit. When William was born on February 2, 1793, the family stayed in the village of Kingston-on-Soar in the county of Nottinghamshire but later they shifted to Norfolk.
In Norfolk, William was educated in practices of agriculture but he never developed a liking for the occupation. After the death of his wife, he started out afresh and used the money earned from selling his plot of land to embark on educational pursuits.
In 1822, he enrolled at the ‘Peterhouse College’ affiliated to the ‘Cambridge University’. He completed his bachelor’s degree in mathematics, with distinction, in the year 1827.
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After his glorious performance in college, he started his career working as a tutor, teaching undergraduate students in the University. He was equally successful in this endeavour and produced about 20 top mathematics undergraduates, with an annual income of £700–800.
His students included the future mathematician Edward Routh, physicist James Clerk Maxwell and chemist William Thomson. The latter worked on the ‘Green’s theorem’ propounded by mathematician George Green after acquiring his notes in possession of Hopkins, in 1828.
William’s association with geology began in 1833 when he joined his Cambridge colleague Adam Sedgwick in numerous geological expeditions undertaken by the latter. He set about applying mathematics to explain the formation of fissures and faults across the earth’s surface.
He propounded that an elevatory force which is in action below the earth’s crust is created by the hot vapours or fluid present below and is the reason for creation of fissures or faults on the surface. His theories contradicted the views or his nemesis Charles Lyell and were eventually proved wrong.
Also in 1833, he wrote his famous book on the trigonometry, a branch of mathematics, titled ‘Elements of Trigonometry’.
Continuing his tryst with geology, between the years 1838 and 1842, he penned several scientific literature pertaining the rotatory motion of the earth.
He also used his theories of elevatory force to explain the phenomenon of earthquakes and volcanoes. His findings in this regard were published by the ‘British Science Association’ in the year 1847.
Hopkins then sought out to study the effects of pressure on the melting point and thermal conductivity of substances. He collaborated with William Fairbairn, the Scottish engineer and James Prescott Joule the English physicist in his quest. The trio concluded after thorough inspection that the melting point of a substance increases with increasing pressure.
Studying the factors that contributed to climate change, he made an assertion that the reduction in earth’s temperature had no effect on the climate of the planet.
Dabbling with glaciology, he also penned several papers on the motion of glaciers and noted that rocks are carried with the glaciers as they melt is the reason why some of the rocks occurring in a region differ in features from the native rocks of the area. Such pieces of rocks were named ‘glacial erratics’.
Hopkins presided over the activities of the ‘Geological Society of London’ from 1851-52. The following year he also chaired the annual meeting of the ‘British Association’ which was organised in Hull.
William Hopkins most important contribution to the field of science was his theory which described the relationship between pressure and melting point of a substance. He proved that the two are directly proportional and thus melting point rises as pressure applied on the substance increases.
Awards & Achievements
Hopkins’ contributions to the field of geology were appreciated by the ‘Geological Society of London’ and they conferred upon him the highest award, ‘Wollaston Medal’, in the year 1850.
Personal Life & Legacy
Hopkins’ first wife passed away in the year 1821 and William then remarried. His second marriage to Caroline Frances Boys, lasted until the former’s death and the couple had four children.
Towards the later stages of his life, William suffered from chronic mania and exhaustion and breathed his last on 13 October 1866, in a psychiatric hospital in the Stoke Newington district of Hackney.
During his years at Cambridge, this renowned scientist was an active member of the university’s cricket club.