The author has done a fine job in bringing this man, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) to life. He was one of the primary movers of the scientific world of the Victorian era, and much can be learned of the development of the physical sciences through a study of his methods, personal interactions, and achievements. Thomson was one of the dozen or so illustrious men, almost entirely British, Scottish, German and French, who developed the central ideas of thermodynamics and electromagnetism in the middle of the 19th century. His particular contribution, among many, was to popularize and further develop the ideas of the Frenchman, Carnot, of the famous reversible heat engine. This was to lead ultimately to the discovery of the absolute temperature scale, now named for him, and to entropy. In electromagnetism, he stood between the non-mathematical insights of Faraday, and the highly mathematical formulation of Maxwell and Heaviside, which has changed little in its fundamental approach, and is still taught to sophomores today. In fact, he and a friend wrote the first recognizable classical physics textbook for undergraduates. And he played a big role as a consultant/inventor for the first transatlantic telegraph cable, a story well told here and in Gordon's recent "Thread Across the Ocean." Thomson was something of a prodigy, gathering honors and publications at a very young age, but later in life his productivity fell off into an idosyncratic crankiness. His required approach to problems was to devise mechanical analogs for phenomena, which turned out to be too limited to arrive at a full field theory of electromagnetism and atomism, neither of which he ever accepted fully. He was a true believer in the ether, but was never able to use it to produce a fruitful alternative to Maxwell's E&M or kinetic theory. It was interesting for me to note the obvious parallels between his life-arc and that of Einstein. Einstein was also unable to fully participate in the later scientific developments in quantum mechanics because of a prejudice or block similar to Thomson's requirement for a mechanical model. And then Kelvin spent an inordinate amount of energy in developing an improved ship's compass (a profitable success), while Einstein tried mightily (but unsuccessfully) to improve the refrigerator. Einstein killed Kelvin's ether by ignoring it, but was in turn killed by his insistence that "God doesn't play with dice." Lindley has written a well-researched but entertaining and well written book. The illustrations are a good addition, not seen before by me. A scientist himself, he is well equipped to understand the science of the times, and is unerring and enthusiastic for his subject. Well done!
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
This is an absolutely fascinating romp through nineteenth century physics which has as its vehicle the life of William Thomson - perhaps better known as Lord Kelvin. Thomson's scientific life and times are very well portrayed - he was interested in almost anything that constituted natural philosophy (today known as physics). But in addition to his pursuits in pure science, Thomson was also intensely interested in using science to develop technology for the betterment of humanity. Consequently, some of his contemporaries have criticized him for spending too much time tinkering and not enough time applying his tremendous intellect to more abstract scientific problems. Thomson's fields of activity were many: thermodynamics, electromagnetism, age of the earth and participating in the laying of the transatlantic cable being only a few. The writing style is clear, authoritative, friendly, accessible and quite captivating. The science is very well explained, despite the fact that illustrative diagrams have not been included.
After reading the book, I was left rather puzzled by the word "tragedy" in its subtitle. Although the elderly William Thomson was often rather reluctant in embracing new development in physics, mainly near the turn of the twentieth century, he did lead a rich productive life and was lauded and respected by his scientific contemporaries and the public alike. Somehow, the word "tragedy" does not seem appropriate.
Although anyone can enjoy this book and learn much from it, because of its scientific content, science buffs are likely to relish it the most.
5.0 out of 5 starsOne of the best scientific biographies on the market
November 30, 2013 - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a superb biography of William Thomson. But it is not just Thomson. The reader will find well-written sketches woven smoothly into the text of all the most influential people that Thomson dealt with in the course of his long life. These include Faraday, Helmholtz, Joule, Maxwell, and many you might not expect like Robert Louis Stevenson, the critically important but largely unknown French physicist, Sadi Carnot, and the equally ignored English physicist, Oliver Heaviside. Lindley is a gifted writer and this biography of Kelvin covers the history of classical physics in the last half of the 19th century in a way that the interested but not necessarily scientifically trained reader can easily follow. Lindley always includes the reader as a partner, so to speak. Unfamiliar terms are clearly explained. New names given are always explained and put into context. Having read the other reviews, I would agree that the book would be even better by the addition of more images and diagrams, though the book does have eight pages of such, mostly of Thomson himself in different stages of his life. I also wonder, as did a couple other reviewers, about the subtitle of the book. It gives the reader the impression that some catastrophic event ends the book. But that is not the case. There is no discernible "tragedy" involved in Thomson's life. What the title is supposed to refer to is the fact that, at the end of his life, Thomson could not accept what to him was a purely theoretical understanding of nature embodied by Maxwell's equations and the major changes in physics at the beginning of the 20th century. Thomson was, as Lindley points out, the last of the great physicists who embodied a mechanistic view of nature and he was stubborn about that conception. But, while this may be a weakness, it is hardly a tragedy. Everyone at the time of his death treated Thomson as a major figure in physics who deserved to be buried in Westminster Abbey near Isaac Newton.
If one ignores the somewhat misleading title, this book is a masterpiece of scientific explanation. From being the first to put into mathematical form Faraday's vision of electromagnetism to his fascinating work helping to lay the Atlantic cable, Thomson was a mathematical prodigy and scientific genius who insisted on using science whenever possible to make human life better. I recommend this book in the highest terms for anyone interested in the development of both modern physics and modern technology. Kelvin's life is intrinsically interesting and the style is clear, easy to follow, and written by an author who knows both the science and the English language. A first-rate book.
5.0 out of 5 starsThe story of an eminent scientist
July 5, 2010 - Published on Amazon.com
As an engineer myself, I've developed something of a hobby of learning about the people behind the names given to all these equations I use on a daily basis. Kelvin is one of said names, though throughout most of his life he went by the name William Thomson. In "Degrees Kelvin," the author, David Lindley, tells the story of this 19th-century British scientist from his undergrad days at Cambridge through his death at the end of 1907. I think most scientists and engineers would enjoy reading this book and learning about one of the men responsible for the all-important laws of thermodynamics. I think Lindley did a remarkable job of presenting the man; if it were possible I would surely like to meet the Lord Kelvin. He seems like a friendly and amazingly intelligent man that I'm sure I could talk with for hours.
In addition to the work on thermo, Thomson was instrumental in getting the transatlantic telegraph cable working, invented the forerunner to inkjet printers, a compass, and several other pieces of science that don't necessarily bear the name Kelvin. But this biography isn't just a story of the science; Lindley tells a captivating story and brings the man to life based on Thomson's correspondence, various diaries, and newspapers. We learn about his family and his friendships with G.G. Stokes, P.G. Tait, and H.L.F. von Helmholtz, among others. Something that came as a surpise to me was the rivalries (read: borderline soap-opera drama) concerning just who was responsible for creating the laws of thermodynamics, the fighting over how to lay the cable, and Kelvin's stubbornness in his later years concerning Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism and refusual to believe in the modern developments of science such as radiation. Nevertheless, Thomson was always interested in using his math and science skills to solve practical problems, which is something that strikes close to home for me as an engineer. Thanks to this book, I now have a much deeper respect for, and understanding of, William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin of Largs.
Another remarkable British physicist of the 19th century. The genius of William Thomson was formidable, capable of tackling every challenge in science quite fast, though not always totally right, but helping to narrow possible solutions and enriching scientific debate of the time. The book takes you to a great epoch of scientific knowledge and progress, from the theory of heat and the beginnings of Thermodynamics, the marvellous story of the trasatlantic cable and even the perfection of ships compasses to compensate the magnetic effect of the new Iron ships that were built by the British Navy. Although I think John Clerk Maxwell is definitely the 19th century physics genius, Thomson place his name near to Faraday and several others that contributed to the dynamic and flourish scientific knowledge of the second half of the 1800.
William Thomson was a genius, but seems that to accept new ideas was not an easy process for him. After reading the book my opinion is the same as Maxwell -- he was so busy on diverse interest that he was incapable of focusing on only one subject.
This was a good book. The author does a nice job documenting the life and times of Lord Kelvin. It may not have been a goal of the author, but I think this book clearly illustrates that advances in science are not the work of one person, but collaboration between many different thinkers. Enjoy the read!