Degrees Kelvin: A Tale of Genius, Invention, and Tragedy / Edition 1

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LORD KELVIN. In 1840, a precocious 16-year-old by the name of William Thomson spent his summer vacation studying an extraordinarily sophisticated mathematical controversy. His brilliant analysis inspired lavish praise and made the boy an instant intellectual celebrity.

As a young scholar William dazzled a Victorian society enthralled with the seductive authority and powerful beauty of scientific discovery. At a time when no one really understood heat, light, electricity, or magnetism, Thomson found key connections between them, laying the groundwork for two of the cornerstones of 19th century science -- the theories of electromagnetism and thermodynamics.

Charismatic, confident, and boyishly handsome, Thomson was not a scientist who labored quietly in a lab, plying his trade in monkish isolation. When scores of able tinkerers were flummoxed by their inability to adapt overland telegraphic cables to underwater, intercontinental use, Thomson took to the high seas with new equipment that was to change the face of modern communications. And as the world’s navies were transitioning from wooden to iron ships, they looked to Thomson to devise a compass that would hold true even when surrounded by steel.

Gaining fame and wealth through his inventive genius, Thomson was elevated to the peerage by Queen Victoria for his many achievements. He was the first scientist ever to be so honored. Indeed, his name survives in the designation of degrees Kelvin, the temperature scale that begins with absolute zero, the point at which atomic motion ceases and there is a complete absence of heat. Sir William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, was Great Britain's unrivaled scientific hero.

But as the century drew to a close and Queen Victoria's reign ended, this legendary scientific mind began to weaken. He grudgingly gave way to others with a keener, more modern vision. But the great physicist did not go quietly. With a ready pulpit at his disposal, he publicly proclaimed his doubts over the existence of atoms. He refused to believe that radioactivity involved the transmutation of elements. And believing that the origin of life was a matter beyond the expertise of science and better left to theologians, he vehemently opposed the doctrines of evolution, repeatedly railing against Charles Darwin. Sadly, this pioneer of modern science spent his waning years arguing that the Earth and the Sun could not be more than 100 million years old. And although his early mathematical prowess had transformed our understanding of the forces of nature, he would never truly accept the revolutionary changes he had helped bring about, and it was others who took his ideas to their logical conclusion.

In the end Thomson came to stand for all that was old and complacent in the world of 19th century science. Once a scientific force to be reckoned with, a leader to whom others eagerly looked for answers, his peers in the end left him behind -- and then meted out the ultimate punishment for not being able to keep step with them. For while they were content to bury him in Westminster Abbey alongside Isaac Newton, they used his death as an opportunity to write him out of the scientific record, effectively denying him his place in history. Kelvin’s name soon faded from the headlines, his seminal ideas forgotten, his crucial contributions overshadowed.

Destined to become the definitive biography of one of the most important figures in modern science, Degrees Kelvin unravels the mystery of a life composed of equal parts triumph and tragedy, hubris and humility, yielding a surprising and compelling portrait of a complex and enigmatic man.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, was one of the 19th century's best-known scientists and inventors. As Lindley (Boltzmann's Atom; The End of Physics; etc.) so comprehensively explains, Kelvin (1824- 1907) was largely responsible for the creation of the twin fields of electromagnetism and thermodynamics, and played a significant role in connecting England and America by transatlantic telegraph cable. Kelvin's work was so important and he was so well known that he became the first British scientist elevated to the peerage, and when he died, he was buried in Westminster Abbey near Isaac Newton. Yet, unlike other scientists of his and earlier times, Kelvin is no longer a household name. In his thoroughly engaging biography, Lindley expertly examines Kelvin's life and the thought processes of this mathematical genius as well as providing a rich overview of physics as it was created from what had been known as "natural philosophy." Lindley also does a superb job of explaining how, over the course of his life and by sticking to his basic scientific principles, Kelvin changed from an extraordinarily creative theoretician, in both the pure and the applied realms, to a scientific anachronism, defending outmoded ideas and refusing to accept new concepts. Lindley provides insight into a misunderstood scientific legend and into the process of science itself at a critical period of history. (On sale Feb. 24) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Having achieved some acclaim for The End of Physics, Where Does the Weirdness Go?, The Science of Jurassic Park, and Boltzmann's Atom, Lindley-an astrophysicist by training-will certainly receive more with this latest effort. He takes us into the delightful world of mid-19th-century British academia to the scientific circles of Joule, Stokes, Maxwell, Helmholtz, and, in the middle of it all, Thomson, Lord Kelvin of Largs. William Thomson, whose name (Kelvin) would be assigned as a unit of the absolute temperature scale, investigated thermodynamics, physics, electromagnetism, and mathematics. An innovative instructor (he introduced the hands-on physics lab for students), inventor, researcher, and author of over 600 scientific papers, he was also crucial to the success of the first transatlantic cable, for which he was knighted. Nearly every honor available at the time was bestowed on Lord Kelvin, including his burial beside Sir Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey. Understandable to the informed reader, this work will deepen science students' appreciation of the individual behind the science they are learning. Suitable for public, school, and academic collections.-Margaret F. Dominy, Drexel Univ. Lib., Philadelphia Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Noted science writer Lindley (Boltzman's Atom, 2001, etc.) chronicles the life of an eminent Victorian scientist, in his time considered second only to Newton. The author picks up the career of William Thomson (1824-1907) upon his arrival at Cambridge. The young man's father gave him an exceptional head start, taking the family on tours of the continent and teaching them advanced science. At age 16, William published a significant paper on heat flow, a subject soon to blossom into thermodynamics and become one of the foundations of classical physics. Thomson contributed significantly to thermodynamics, even giving it its name, but never developed a full-blown theory of heat. Inability to see the larger implications of his ideas was a characteristic shortcoming, despite an impressive record of success. Accepting a professorship at Glasgow, Thomson supplemented his academic income with practical ventures. He advised the company that laid the first transatlantic telegraph cable, in the process inventing an improved receiver. He developed a compass that became the British naval standard for 40 years. Work like this, which bolstered England's economic and technological supremacy, led to Thomson's elevation to the peerage as Lord Kelvin in 1892, the first British scientist to be so honored. But in his practical side lay the seeds of his downfall. Thomson questioned geologists' estimates of the age of the earth after calculating (correctly, given the energy sources known at the time) that the sun's total lifetime could be only a few million years. When the discovery of radioactivity showed a way out of the impasse, he refused to amend his position. This failure of imagination made him ascientific fossil, the embodiment of classical physics just as its edifice began to crumble. Lindley deftly interweaves accounts of Thomson's scientific career, his relations with his contemporaries, and his personal life, always cocking an eye to the larger historical picture. Sympathetic study of a man whose achievements were overshadowed by his inability to understand how science was changing. Agent: Susan Rabiner/Susan Rabiner Literary
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780309096188
  • Publisher: National Academies Press
  • Publication date: 2/10/2004
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 392
  • Product dimensions: 5.74 (w) x 10.88 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii
Introduction 1
1 Cambridge 11
2 Conundrums 64
3 Cable 114
4 Controversies 164
5 Compass 215
6 Kelvin 260
Epilogue 309
Bibliography 317
Notes 325
Index 353
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