John Lighton Synge

Born: 23 March 1897 in Dublin, Ireland
Died: 30 March 1995 in Dublin, Ireland

John Synge's father Edward Synge could trace his family back to the fifteenth century. The origin of the name "Synge" is described in the introduction to General relativity : papers in honour of J L Synge :-
The name Synge is said to have originated with Henry VIII, who commanded a favourite choirboy to "Synge, Millington, synge".
John Synge's mother, Ellen Price, was of Scottish origin, being descended from the Scottish Stuarts, in particular a Sir William Stuart who went to Ireland in the early seventeenth century.

After being educated at St Andrews College in Dublin, Synge entered Trinity College, Dublin in 1915. There his achievements were quite remarkable, winning a Foundation Scholarship at the end of his first year. This scholarship was normally won by students in their third year of study. He was awarded his B.A. in 1919 in Mathematics and Experimental Physics. He received the Large Gold Medal for his outstanding work.

After graduating, Synge was appointed to a lectureship in mathematics at Trinity College, but he only held the post for a short time, leaving for Canada in 1920. from 1920 to 1925 Synge was an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Toronto. Then in 1925 he returned to Trinity College, Dublin where he was elected to a fellowship and also appointed to the chair of Natural Philosophy (the older name for Physics).

In 1930 Synge headed back to North America and again was appointed to the University of Toronto, this time as Professor of Applied Mathematics. He spent some time in 1939 at Princeton University and, in 1941, he was a visiting professor at Brown University. In 1943 Synge was appointed as Chairman of the Mathematics Department of Ohio State University, then, three years later, as Head of the Mathematics Department of the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburg. He also spent a short time as ballistic mathematician in the US Air Force during 1944-45.

In 1948 he returned to Ireland to take up the post of Senior Professor in the School of Theoretical Physics of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. This School, which had been set up when the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies had been founded in 1940, had several outstanding members including Erwin Schrödinger who was also a Senior Professor.

P S Florides [3] describes the range of topics that Synge worked on:-

Professor Synge made outstanding contributions to widely varied fields: classical mechanics, geometrical mechanics and geometrical optics, gas dynamics, hydrodynamics, elasticity, electrical networks, mathematical methods, differential geometry and, above all, Einstein's theory of relativity.
Synge's most important contributions to theoretical physics were, in many respects, the product of his great skill and insight as a geometer [3]:-
He felt just as much at home in the ordinary three dimensional Euclidean space as in the four dimensional space-time of relativity. In an astonishing paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (... 1950) he was able, for the first time, to penetrate and explore in detail the region inside the Schwarzschild radius (what we now call a black hole). At a time when many relativists thought that it did not even make sense to talk about this region, this work is very remarkable indeed.
Synge retired in 1972 and during his time at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies about 12% of all workers in relativity theory studied there. Professor Hermann Bondi, who gave the first J L Synge Public Lecture in 1992, remarked:-
Every one of the other 88% has been deeply influenced by his geometric vision and the clarity of his expression.
During his long scientific career, Synge published over 200 papers and 11 books. Three of his books were aimed at providing an understanding of science to a wider audience and, with such a fine expository style, he was well suited to write such works. As Florides says in [3]:-
Every single book and every single paper is a remarkable work of art.
Synge's classic, written in 1956, had a large influence [1]:-
It is a remarkable fact that hardly a single space-time diagram is to be found in the standard texts on relativity before Synge's own presentation in 1956. To many, the 1956 book came as a revelation. Here was a royal road to relativity which did not involve precarious juggling with factors of √(1 - v2/c2). The pervasive influence of the book can be traced in much of the best research in the last fifteen years [this written in 1971], with its new emphasis on invariant geometrical characterisation.
The preface to the 1956 work contains the delightful thought:-
Splitting hairs in an ivory tower is not to everyone's liking and no doubt many a relativist looks forward to the day when governments will ask his advice on important questions.
Synge's skill at communication was not only a gift that he had for writing, but also a gift in lecturing. His son-in-law Douglas Dryer wrote:-
Those who have attended J. L.'s lectures well remember the effectiveness with which they were delivered. J. L. was by no means inattentive to achieving such effectiveness. Once, upon opening a public lecture he posed the question, if I recall correctly, as to whether a scientific lecture is to be compared with a theatrical performance, a religious sermon or a circus.
Those who were fortunate enough to have attended Synge lectures say that he combined all three.

Synge received many honours for his work. The greatest of these was probably his election as a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1943. He was also elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and was president of the Royal Irish Academy from 1961 to 1964.

He is described in [3] as:-

... a kind and generous man. He encouraged and inspired several generations of students who will always remember him with gratitude, fondness and the deepest respect.
As to hobbies, Synge was a keen cyclist, was passionately interested in sailing and painted some very fine compositions. In particular he painted a picture representing Schrödinger held in the hand of God contemplating unified field theory.

Synge was a member of a highly talented family. We mention three other members of the family. First John Millington Synge (1871-1909), John Lighton Synge's uncle, who was a playwright and a powerful poetic dramatist who portrayed the primitive life of the Aran Islands and the western Irish coast. Secondly there was Richard Laurence Millington Synge (1914-1994), Nobel laureate for Chemistry in 1952, who shared the Prize for Chemistry with A J P Martin for their development of partition chromatography, a method used to separate mixtures of closely related chemicals such as amino acids for identification. Thirdly we mention Cathleen Synge Morawetz, Professor of Mathematics at the New York Courant Institute, who is John Lighton Synge's daughter. She was the first woman to hold the Directorship of the Courant Institute and she was President of the American Mathematical Society in 1995-96.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

June 1998
MacTutor History of Mathematics