John Strutt, 3rd Baron Rayleigh

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Lord Rayleigh

John William Strutt.jpg
John William Strutt, 3rd Baron Rayleigh

November 12, 1842
Langford Grove, Maldon, Essex, UK

Died June 30, 1919

Terling Place, Witham, Essex, UK

Residence Flag of the United Kingdom.svg UK
Nationality Flag of England (bordered).svg English
Field Physicist
Institutions University of Cambridge
Alma mater University of Cambridge
Academic advisor  Edward John Routh
Notable students  J. J. Thomson Nobel.svg
George Paget Thomson 20px
Jagdish Chandra Bose
Known for Discovery of argon
Rayleigh waves
Rayleigh scattering
Rayleigh criterion
Notable prizes Nobel.svg Nobel Prize for Physics (1904)

John William Strutt, 3rd Baron Rayleigh (better known as Lord Rayleigh) (November 12, 1842 – June 30, 1919) was an English physicist who is credited jointly with William Ramsey with the discovery of the element argon. He also discovered the phenomenon now called Rayleigh scattering, and made important discoveries in fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, and acoustics.



Strutt was born in Langford Grove, Essex, the son of John Strutt, Second Baron Rayleigh, and his wife, Clara Elizabeth La Touche. In his early years, he suffered frailty and poor health, which interfered with his regular attendance at Eton and Harrow School. His last four years of pre-college education were spent at a private boarding school in Highstead, Torquay, run by the Rev. George T. Warner, where he developed an interest in mathematics and science.

University years

He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1861 at the age of 20. In his college years, he was tutored for the mathematical tripos by E.J. Routh, and attended the lectures of the mathematical physicist George G. Stokes. In 1865, he obatined his Bachelor of Science degree, and finished first as Senior Wrangler and first Smith's prize, the two major mathematics contests on the university level. He was awarded a master of arts degree in 1868, and was subsequently elected to a fellowship at Trinity, after which he traveled for a time in the United States.

Early research

Upon his return to England in 1868, he purchased equipment to outfit a laboratory in his own home. In the same year, he published his first paper on alternating currents. Rayleigh's research then turned to color vision and acoustics, during which time he carried on a correspondence with the prominent physicist James Clerk Maxwell. In 1871, he married Evelyn Balfour, daughter of James Maitland Balfour. The couple had three sons.

The same year, he published an analysis of light scattering of the atmosphere in which he accounted for the blue color of the sky.

Shortly after his marriage, Strutt suffered from Rheumatic fever and became dangerously ill. He gradually recovered after an excursion to Egypt, during which time he began work on his two-volume "Theory of Sound," which came out in 1877. In this treatise, Strutt was among the first to treat the properties of air flow at supersonic speeds.[1] In the next several years, he conducted research in optics, and devised a standard test for the resolving power of optical systems.

Rayleigh's autograph

In 1873 Strutt's father died, and he inherited the Barony of Rayleigh and the Terling Place Estate at Witham, Essex.

Successor to Maxwell

In 1879, Strutt assumed the chair of second Cavendish Professor of Physics at the University of Cambridge, replacing Maxwell, who died of stomach cancer. He held this post until 1884, delivering 40 lectures a year and maintaining a presence at the university. During this time, he developed a laboratory teaching curriculum, and conducted research on the relationship between the electrical and electromagnetic units for resistance.

A Nobel prize

Strutt became interested in determining the exact density of the common gases in air as early as 1882, when he addressed the British Association for the Advancement of Science on the topic. Upon his leaving the Cavendish chair in 1884, he commenced experiments in his laboratory that led to more exact determinations of the density of atmospheric nitrogen], which was found to differ from nitrogen produced from chemical compounds. In 1892, Rayleigh showed that the density of nitrogen prepared from ammonia was less than that of atmospheric nitrogen. This discrepancy Strutt attributed to the presence of an unknown gas. Strutt was joined by the Scottish chemist William Ramsey, who had been investigating the same problem, and the two isolated an element in 1895 which they named Argon. For this achievement, the two won Nobel prizes in 1904, Rayleigh in physics and Ramsey in chemistry.

In 1900, Strutt published results on the relationship between temperature and energy distribution for a body that is a perfect absorber and emitter of electromagnetic waves, known as a "black body." The so-called Rayleigh Jeans law (James Jeans improved somewhat on Strutt's formulation) only holds for radiation of longer wavelengths. Max Plank resolved this limitation by introducing the concept of quantized energy.

Strutt was one of the few scientists who took an early interest in the subject of heavier-than-air flight. He delivered a speech on the subject in 1900, and later headed up the British government's panel on aeronautics.[2]

Later years

On June 12, 1873, Strutt assumed the presidency of the Royal Society, of which he had been a member since 1873. In 1908, he was appointed chancellor of Cambridge University.

Rayleigh continued to be active in research. Included in his work were memoirs on fields as diverse as acoustics, mechanical engineering and mineralogy. Rayleigh was particularly known for his work on the human ability to determine the location of the origin of a sound. He perfected his theory of light scattering, writing three papers on the subject between 1910 and 1918.[3]

Lord Rayleigh died on June 30, 1919 in Witham, Essex.

Rayleigh and spiritualism

Rayleigh held deep religious convictions, and wished to harmonize these with his scientific pursuits. In the 1870s, influenced by fellow physicist William Crookes, he took an interest in psychical phenomena, and attended seances and sittings with those reputed to have psychic powers.[4] He never confirmed his belief in psychic manifestations, however, even though he retained a lifelong interest in the subject. He was a member of the Society for Psychical Research, as were a number of Nobel laureates, and gave the group's presidential address in 1919, the year of his death.[5]

His views on spirituality were perhaps best expressed in a letter to an acquaintance. "I have never thought the materialist view possible," he wrote in 1910, with only a decade to live, "and I look to a power beyond what we see, and to a life in which we may at least hope to take part."[6]


Considering that he accomplished so much work from a laboratory on his estate, one would be tempted to class Rayleigh as an amateur, along with James Prescott Joule, who as a brewer, performed his experiments at home. It must become apparent, however, that there can be no distinction between amateurs and professionals when it comes to quality of work and its impact. Rayleigh preferred to work in a familiar setting in which he had ready access to the tools of the trade. The accuracy of his measurements of the density of gases are what eventually won him a Nobel prize. And his measurements of electrical units were close to modern numbers.

Rayleigh kept his hand in any number of fields of physics, and this becomes evident when one considers the number of laws and physical phenomena connected with his name. This did not cause him in any way to abandon his religious convictions, and one might even say that his spiritual beliefs helped fuel his natural curiosity that was so important to the many discoveries he made.


  • Royal Medal (1882)
  • Matteucci Medal (1894)
  • Copley Medal (1899)
  • Nobel Prize for Physics (1904)
  • Rumford Medal (1920)

Named after Rayleigh

  • Craters on Mars and the Moon are named in honor of Rayleigh.
  • A type of surface wave is known as a Rayleigh wave.

See also

  • Argon
  • Rayleigh scattering


  1. John David Anderson, 1997, A history of aerodynamics and its impact on flying machines, 108, Cambridge aerospace series, 8. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521454352.
  2. John David Anderson, 1997, A history of aerodynamics and its impact on flying machines, 108 Cambridge aerospace series, 8. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521454352.
  3. Bruce J. Berne, and Robert Pecora, 1976, Dynamic light scattering with applications to chemistry, biology, and physics, 4, New York: Wiley. ISBN 0471071005.
  4. Janet Oppenheim, 1985, The other world spiritualism and psychical research in England, 1850-1914, 331, Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521265053.
  5. Oppenheim, 331.
  6. Oppenheim, 332.


  • Anderson, John David. 1997. A history of aerodynamics and its impact on flying machines. Cambridge aerospace series, 8. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 108. ISBN 0521454352.
  • Getling, A. V. 1998. "Rayleigh-Bénard convection structures and dynamics." in Advanced series in nonlinear dynamics, v. 11. Singapore: World Scientific. 9810226578.
  • Biography Nobel Web AB, 2008. Retrieved October 24, 2007.
  • About John William Strutt, 2003. Retrieved October 24, 2007.
  • Rayleigh. 1968. Life of John William Strutt, Third Baron Rayleigh, O.M., F.R.S. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Rayleigh, John William Strutt, and Robert Bruce Lindsay. 1945. The theory of sound. Vol. 1. New York: Dover. v-xi. ISBN 0486602923.


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