Mathematical musings from the sickbed

Have you ever written a letter to yourself? This is exactly what James Hopwood Jeans (1877-1946) did in 1902 as he lay in a sanatorium at Ringwood, Hampshire.


Portrait of James Jeans FRS, 1924, by Philip de László © The Royal Society


Jeans was a mathematician and astronomer, born in Lancashire and spending most of his early adult life studying mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge. Apparently, he could tell the time at the age of three. This natural inclination towards arithmetic was evident during his battle, from c.1898, with tuberculosis of the knees and wrists.

Despite spending considerable time in seclusion until he was cured in 1903, Jeans was not cut off from the burgeoning expertise and intellect of his colleagues and friends at Cambridge. It was during this time that he established himself as a prestigious mathematician. He was awarded a first class degree, followed by an Isaac Newton studentship and a Smith’s prize. His success continued after his health was restored and in 1906 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at the early age of 28.

On 19 April 1902, having spent a long duration at Ringwood, Jeans employed an interesting technique to lift his spirits above the dismal condition of his body: he wrote a letter to himself.

Jeans pondered the fact that ‘this confinement at Ringwood has told somewhat upon your [Jeans’s] spirits – as how should it not?’. Yet Jeans was hopeful: ‘your anxiety is now over: you have every reason to feel hopeful: you have freedom from actual pain’. Parts of the letter are poetic representations of Jeans’s improving condition: ‘The clouds race over the brink of your valley; the birds have begun to chatter about nest-building; and the trees are pushing on with their budding, & give the birds their leafy secrecy’.

Jeans’s letter was reciprocated a few days later. The writer (Jeans) confessed to Jeans: ‘I read your letter with mixed feeling’. In fact for Jeans, replying to the first letter, the language used therein was ‘too childish. What is the talk of birds (gracious powers!) and clouds (good God!)? What sickly sentimental stuff!’. Jeans also rejected the positive tone expounded in the initial letter, rather, describing his debilitated state at Ringwood as ‘perfectly disgusting’. Yet, an inward (and outward) struggle between despair and hope over his current health is apparent as Jeans admitted, ‘I am secretly more optimistic’.

In these communications Jeans’s reliance on the ‘sympathy’ of his friends at Cambridge is also apparent. Not able to see them in person at Ringwood or return to Cambridge, one way Jeans maintained contact with his colleagues and friends was through the Philosophical Transactions, the long-running scientific journal of the Royal Society.


Photograph of G H Hardy FRS, from the Archives of the Royal Society


Godfrey Harold Hardy (1877-1947), who was a fellow mathematician at Trinity College, wrote to Jeans during his time at Ringwood, relaying the sentiment that he ‘was very glad to hear such an encouraging report and suppose we may really expect you up [in Cambridge] next term’. Yet he confessed to Jeans that the real reason for his writing was less altruistic: ‘I was really writing to ask for a copy of your latest paper, which seems to me to be rivalling Whittaker’s in notoriety’. The said paper was ‘The Distribution of Molecular Energy’, printed in Phil Trans in 1901, during which Jeans was laid up in Ringwood. Edmund Taylor Whittaker’s (1873-1956) paper, which Hardy referenced, was ‘On the Connexion of Algebraic Functions with Automorphic Functions’, published in Phil Trans in 1899.

As Jeans came to the end of his respite in April of 1903, Arthur Robert Hinks (1873-1945), who was at this time astronomer at the Observatory in Cambridge, thanked Jeans for his ‘most interesting paper’ (‘On the Vibrations and Stability of a Gravitating Planet’ published in the Phil Trans in the same year). Hinks also knew of a 1902 paper by Jeans in Phil Trans on the ‘nebula’: ‘Have you a copy you could spare? I should value it greatly’.

Despite Jeans’s ostensibly prohibitive condition, he continued to communicate with his colleagues and to distribute his mathematical theories. Between his quarantine and his return to academic life Jeans published a total of five papers in the Phil Trans, in addition to the monograph he published at the same time. The Philosophical Transactions was an important medium in these sickbed communications.