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Kelvin: Life, Labours and Legacy

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Kelvin: Life, Labours and Legacy
Edited by Raymond Flood, Mark McCartney, and Andrew Whitaker. (Oxford University Press, New York, NY: 2008. Pg. xii, 358. Illustrations.) ISBN: 978-0-19-923125-6.

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - May 25, 2011

Kelvin: Life, Labours, and Legacy is a book that provides an eclectic overview of William Thomson's (Lord Kelvin) life and works. This book contains sixteen disparate essays that are organized into three sections that are denoted in the books title. Namely, they cover Thomson's life, his labours, and his legacy. The essays in this collection where written by scholars in a variety of fields, including historians, scientists and mathematicians. On the surface this might seem like a strange combination of authors. However, if you know anything about Thomson's life, it is quite understandable why writers from such diverse fields where chosen to contribute to this volume.

Thomson (1824-1907), was a scientist, inventor, and educator who greatly contributed to the establishment of physics as a unique and modern field of inquiry. He also made numerous contributions to the field of maritime navigation, mathematics, and geology, as well as making numerous technological contributions to commercial industries. In addition, he was a key player in the laying of the first transatlantic undersea telegraph cable, and in developing methodologies that help to improve transmission quality and reception. Thomson was the first scientist to be elevated to the peerage, and he became Baron Kelvin of Lags (Lord Kelvin) in 1892.

Combined, the essays in this collection serve as a biography of Thomson's life. In addition, they also provide insightful and detailed analysis of many of the key contributions that he made over the course of his lifetime. These include Thomson's writing, along with Peter Guthrie Tait, The Treatise on Natural Philosophy which is, basically, the first textbook ever written concerning physics. Other contributions covered include Thomson's determination of the age of the earth, his contributions to the field of engineering, his study of thermodynamics, and much more. This book also includes four essays that detail Thomson's legacy, including one fascinating essay, written by Colin Latimer, on how Thomson's work influenced the development of science and technology in Meiji Japan.

Although these essays are academic in nature, they are still accessible to general readers. For those wishing to delve deeper into the numerous subjects covered in this text, you will find a section at the end of the book entitled Notes, References, and Further Readings. This section can be used to construct a bibliography on Thomson, and as guide for further inquires on the life and work of this remarkable man.

A sampling of the essays that you will find in this important collection include: Kelvin: Life, Labours, and Legacy has a nice mix of essays on Thomson, making it ideal reading for both scientist and historians alike. It is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the life and times of Lord Kelvin, Victorian Science, and British history. This work explores not just the life of one man, but also the numerous contributions that he made in the realms of science and technology, contributions that still have an impact today. If this book whets your appetite for more information on Thomson (a.k.a. Lord Kelvin), let me point you toward the most modern biography published on Kelvin, Degrees Kelvin by David Lindley, and to the most comprehensive, though slightly dated, biography on Kelvin, The Life of Lord Kelvin, by Silvanus P. Thompson.


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


Related Reviews:

Degrees Kelvin: A Tale of Genius, Invention, and Tragedy, by David Lindley.
This is a popular biography that provides a compelling overview of William Thomson's life and works, and which introduces a new generation to this nearly forgotten, but still vitally important scientific hero who is known to us today as Lord Kelvin.

Lord Kelvin and the Age of the Earth, by Joe D. Burchfield.
This book charts the enormous impact made by Lord Kelvin's application of thermodynamic laws to the question of the earth's age and the heated debate his ideas sparked among British Victorian scientist.

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