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Degrees Kelvin: A Tale of Genius, Invention, and Tragedy

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Degrees Kelvin: A Tale of Genius, Invention, and Tragedy
By David Lindley. (John Henry Press. An Imprint of the National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.: 2004. Pg. viii, 366. Illustrations.) ISBN: 978-0-309-09618-8.

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - May 18, 2011

William Thomson (1824-1907) was one of the most respected and admired scientist and educator of his time. He was knighted by Queen Victoria for his scientific endeavors, and eventually he became the first scientist to be elevated to the peerage, becoming Baron Kelvin of Lags. Now known primarily as Lord Kelvin, William Thomson was a superstar of his day. Yet, with the exception of his connection with the Kelvin temperature scale (Thomson discovered absolute zero), his name is almost unknown today.

Thomson formulated the first two laws of thermodynamics, he helped to lay the first transatlantic underwater telegraph cable, he wrote more than 650 articles on scientific, technological, and mathematical matters, he made numerous, ground breaking scientific and technological discoveries, he invented a plethora of devices used not only in scientific fields, but also in the commercial realms, he helped to transform the study of physics into a distinct discipline, he established the foundations for the study of electromagnetism and thermodynamics, and much more. So why is his name no longer a household word? How did he go from being a mathematical prodigy as a child to becoming one of the most venerated physicists of his day? How did he make so many scientific advances? Did he interact with other renowned scientist of his day such as James Clerk Maxwell, Herman Von Helmholtz, Michael Faraday, and James Joule? (The short answer to this question is yes, and many more as well.) What did these other men of science think of Thomson? And, what did the public think of Thomson? These and many other questions are answered in Degrees Kelvin: A Tale of Genius, Invention, and Tragedy, by David Lindley.

Lindley has crafted an outstanding biography of Thomson in Degrees Kelvin. He not only brings his subject to life, but also explains the intricacies of his life from how his mind worked to his thoughts about how the physical world was structured. Lindley also delves into Thomson's personal life, including his two marriages, and what his childhood was like. Most important, especially for readers without a strong scientific background, Lindley explains the science behind Thomson's scientific achievements in a clear and jargon-free style. This makes it easy to understand the basic principles underlaying Thomson's scientific work and to appreciate just how remarkable his genius was and why much of the information that he garnered from his studies is still in use today.

In writing this biography, Lindley has taken a chronological approach, starting with Thomson's early life and education, and following his life until its end. He also provides a brief epilogue that summarizes Thomson's life and works, and the impact that he has had on the scientific world since his death. Lindley examines the major achievements of Thomson's life, such as his work with the undersea cables, his teaching career, his contributions to the field of physics, and to a variety of other fields including mathematics, engineering, and maritime navigation. He also examines the many controversies that Thomson was involved with, most important of which was the controversy surrounding Thomson's estimation for the age of the earth. He also examines Thomson's unwillingness, toward the end of his career, to accept some of the new scientific advances being made, such as in the study of radioactivity.

From beginning to end, Degrees Kelvin is a fascinating book to read. It is perfect for both generalist and scientists alike. Lindley, who is himself a scientist, ably explains all scientific terms and processes so plainly, yet without talking down to the reader, that no matter how limited your science background is, you should be able to understand the information presented without difficulty. As important, Lindley writes with the skill of a novelist, making what could have been a rather dry read into an exciting adventure into a fascinating aspect of history while also providing an intimate glimpse into the life of a singularly remarkable man.

Interested in learning more about Lord Kelvin?
Please visit Rochelle's Guide to All Things Kelvin for additional information...

Related Reviews:

The Life of Lord Kelvin, by Silvanus P. Thompson.
The work is considered the definitive biography of Lord Kelvin, and it includes Kelvin's personal recollections and data.

Kelvin: Life, Labours and Legacy, edited by Raymond Flood, Mark McCartney, and Andrew Whitaker.
This book contains a collection of chapters, authored by leading experts, covering the life and wide-ranging contributions made by William Thomson, Lord Kelvin (1824-1907).

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