Celebrating Cumbria’s Contributions to Science



Last week was science week and to celebrate we’re looking at two Cumbrian scientists that have made outstanding contributions to the field.


From atomic theory now used around the world to looking for extraterrestrial life, let's have a look at science in our county!

Dr John Hallsworth, a 54-year-old father of two hailing from the little village of Gaitsgill in the Dalston area of Carlisle is responsible for looking into the possibility of alien life for NASA.


Growing up in the 80s, Hallsworth first fell in love with the natural world in his childhood home in North Manchester.


He said he was always "communing with nature" by studying plants and insects on the housing estate he lived in and continuing this love when he moved to Gaitsgill:

“In 1984, when I was 16, we moved to Gaitsgill and I spent a lot of time walking and cycling around, absorbing the wildlife and natural world.”


Dr John Hallsworth (right) with astronaut Stan Love at the Johnson Space Center


The former Caldew school pupil's love for plants and animals continued into adult life. Hallsworth is now a leading authority within NASA on the physical limits of life or what is more commonly known as astrobiology: the study of life in the universe.


John currently works at Queens University in Belfast. Him and his team of academics have achieved groundbreaking discoveries- such as how microbial life can’t live on Venus: “Not only did we find the effective concentration of water molecules is slightly below what is needed for the most resilient micro-organism on Earth; we found that it’s more than 100 times too low.


“It is almost at the bottom of the scale and an unbridgeable distance from what life requires to be active.”


Venus is the 2nd planet closest to the sun

Photo credit: Getty Images


Dr Hallworth’s work in his field is pioneering and his research draws on the limits of life on Earth and even discovered a new type of chemistry that limits life.


His work also played a hand in helping identify parts of Mars which have sufficient moisture and suitable temperature to sustain microbial life.


We guess there is life on Mars after all but not the kind you see in sci-fi movies as John explains: “It’s not impossible that cellular life originally came to Earth from Mars. Over extended time-scales countless Martian rocks (in the form of meteorites) have fallen onto Earth.


"Some Earth microbes inhabit rocks, so if any of these Martian meteorites which fell in the distant past had contained microbes, these could have gone on to develop into the life-forms now found on Earth.”


Mars the red planet where cellular life could have come from

Photo credit: Getty Images


John Dalton (1766-1884), is a historical scientist hailing from the village of Eaglesfield, close to Cockermouth.


Dalton started working at only 10 years old to support his family. Remarkably, at the age of 12 he was given a teaching role in a local school.

When he was 15, Dalton moved to Kendal to teach at a school there.


It was then he was introduced to two educated men who taught Dalton on a range of topics.


One topic being meteorology: scientific study of the atmosphere, especially as a means of forecasting the weather.


John was so fascinated by meteorology, he kept daily records of the weather.


A painting of John Dalton

Photo credit: Science and Industry Museum

Dalton left the Lake District at age 27 to teach mathematics and natural philosophy at Manchester academy (University of Manchester).


But he would spend his holidays in the Lake District carrying out meteorology work.


Dalton and his friend Jonathan Otley would head up the peaks to measure temperature and altitude and used a barometer to measure the heights of the mountains.


The highest ten peaks in the Lake District were unknown until Dalton and Otley measured the heights of the mountains

Photo credit: Global Adventure Challenges


In 1794 Dalton produced a paper for Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society on "Extraordinary facts relating to the vision of colours".


Although Dalton’s theory was later disproved he did get it right that the condition is hereditary and to this day colour blindness is referred to as Daltonism in some parts of the world.


How John Dalton would have seen the world

Photo credit: BBC


Dalton’s most influential work in chemistry was his atomic theory. Dalton disproved the theory held by previous Greek philosophers and Mathematicians that atoms of all kinds of matter are the same.


He claimed that atoms of different elements vary in size and mass, and indeed this claim is the main feature of his atomic theory.


A cover photo of a video on Dalton’s Atomic Theory

Photo credit: YouTube


Dalton concluded that every element was made of atoms, with each element having its own unique atomic structure, and that atoms could not be destroyed.


His atomic theory has formed the basis of both particle physics and chemistry, and without it many important discoveries would not have been made.


Dalton made astounding theories that have shaped chemistry. He has a plaque dedicated to him in his hometown of Eaglesfield, as well as a building at Manchester Metropolitan University, and a street in Manchester City Centre.


The John Dalton Plaque on John Dalton street in Manchester City Centre

Photo credit: Manchester Evening News


Both Hallsworth and Dalton drew their inspiration and passion for their fields from the wildlife, natural world and wonders of the mountains in our county.


They are both trailblazers in their roles as scientists, with Dalton accurately measuring the peaks of the mountains, and Hallsworth developing a new field of chemistry concerned with life limits.


We have the natural beauty of Cumbria to thank for influencing their path to remarkable scientific discoveries.


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