Beyond their proportion in western society's population, Scots have made a profound contribution to modern society. Many Scots have certainly been recognized for their leadership in discovery and science and for their brilliant inventiveness. Names like Alexander Graham Bell for the telephone, Alexander Fleming for penicillin and James Watt for the steam engine immediately come to mind -- and their careers have been documented endlessly elsewhere.
This page is intended to introduce some of the more unsung Scottish heroes of modern science.
John McCowan was born into a humble family in 1863. His parents were William McCowan, tailor, and Mary McKay. He was a grandson of John McCowan, also a tailor in Bridge of Allan, Scotland. His great-grandmother, Jean Murdoch, was a cousin of the notorious "Laird of MacNab", an aristocrat who tried to establish his own feudal barony in Canada.
After graduating from the University of Glasgow, John McCowan was an assistant lecturer in natural philosophy and a demonstrator in the physics lab. He taught at the Royal College of Science in Dublin. When he was a demonstrator of physics and assistant in mathematics at University College, Dundee, in the 1890s, John McCowan published several very important papers on wave theory. His work is cited in numerous papers even a century later.
In essence, the next time you hear the Beach Boys or "surf" the world wide web, you should think of John McCowan. His work precisely predicts the highest possible wave that can occur prior to the wave breaking over. The fluid mechanics and physics that supports the sport of surfing were all sown together by John McCowan. His work also partially explains tsunamis.
Poor health forced him into a six month leave in 1900 and, shortly afterwards, death ended a brilliant scientific career at the age of 37. Had he not died so young, his important start on the nature of waves could have ultimately led him to a place in history beside the likes of Einstein and Planck. Independent consideration of the physics of waves and particles finally led to discussion of the dual nature of light, then quantum mechanics and relativity. We will probably never know just how close John McCowan was to looking at wave-particle duality.
Curiously, John's first cousin had a son born that same year, 1900, named Archibald Patrick McCowan. He too became a "student of science" -- but he died even younger than John, at the age of 26.
A short biography of John McCowan appears in Hydraulicians in Europe, 1800-2000. This biographical dictionary of leaders in hydraulic engineering and fluid mechanics was a labour of love for Professor Willi Hager. To order a copy, please go to www.iahr.net or contact the IAHR Secretariat at firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 34 91 335 7919.