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The Life of Lord Kelvin

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The Life of Lord Kelvin
Second Edition, in Two Volumes. By Silvanus P. Thompson. AMS Chelsea Publishing. American Mathematical Society, Providence, Rhode Island: 1976. Pg. 1,297, for both volumes combined. Illustrations.) ISBN for Set: 978-0-8218-3745-0. ISBN for Volume I individually: 978-0-8218-3743-6. ISBN for Volume II individually: 978-0-8218-3744-3.

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - May 31, 2011

The Life of Lord Kelvin is the most detailed and comprehensive biography of William Thomson [Lord Kelvin] that is currently available. First published in 1910 and written with the cooperation of Lord Kelvin (1824-1907), this biography covers both the professional and private sides of his life, as well as explaining the scientific aspects of his career.

For those not familiar with William Thomson... He was Irish born, but of Scottish descent and he is best known today as Lord Kelvin. He was a Victorian era scientist, inventor, and educator who was renowned on both sides of the Atlantic. He is the discoverer of absolute zero, and the Kelvin temperature scale is named after him. He served as the Professor of Natural Philosophy (a precursor to physics) at the University of Glasgow for more than fifty years, a post that he secured at the young age of twenty-two. He also formulated the first two laws of thermodynamics, coauthored the first modern physics textbook, invented numerous maritime devices including a calculator to predict tides, determined the age of the earth (incorrectly as it turned out), and he made many advances in the fields of mathematics, engineering, electricity, electromagnetism, and much more, which are still applicable today. He also played a key role in the laying of the first submarine telegraph cable, a feat for which he was knighted by Queen Victoria. In short, he was a genius with a knack for identifying and solving both scientific and technological problems. For his efforts he not only garnered fame and fortune, but was also the first scientist ever elevated to the English peerage, becoming the first Baron Kelvin of Largs in 1892. Thereafter he was referred to as Lord Kelvin. He is often referred to as Lord Kelvin in books, even when the subject of the book covers a period before he became a baron. This is to avoid any confusion with William Thomson (1856-1947), a well-known Scottish born mathematician and educator.

Silvanus P. Thompson, the author of The Life of Lord Kelvin was himself an eminent scientist, which allowed him to not only understand and appreciate Kelvin's work, but also to translate it into a format that is understandable for readers without a strong scientific background. As important, Thompson's writing is engaging, his subject matter fascinating, and the combination of the two serve to provide readers with a biography that is both entertaining and informative. In writing this biography, he chose to let the subject speak for himself whenever possible. He did this by including a plethora of letters written by and to Kelvin, diary entries, reminiscences from his family members and friends, as well as excerpts from newspaper and journal articles. When work on this biography first began, Kelvin was still alive, and he eagerly contributed to the writing of this book by suppling Thompson with not only his own personal recollections, but also a substantial amount of data about his work.

This biography is written primarily in a chronological format, beginning with Kelvin's birth in 1824 and taking the reader through to his internment at Westminster Abbey in 1907, and just about everything in-between. Kelvin's interests were eclectic at times and unlike many scientists who constrained their research to only one field; Kelvin went wherever his curiosity and interest directed him, making contributions to numerous fields of study. When possible, Thompson has tried to group the key elements of his life into thematic chapters while still maintaining, as best as possible, a chronological format.

Stop a dozen people on the street and ask them who Lord Kelvin was, and most likely you'll be greeted with blank stares, or if you're lucky, someone will make the connection between the name and the Kelvin temperature scale. So why, you ask, should you bother reading a biography of this seemly forgotten genius? For just that reason - Kelvin was a genius. Many of the scientific, technological, and maritime advances that we are familiar with today were built upon the work that Kelvin did, and many of his inventions are still in use today. Consequently an understanding of Kelvin's work is still relevant today. In addition, Kelvin led a remarkable life. He interacted with, and was friends with, many of the key scientist of the Victorian era, and corresponded with even more. Kelvin was a vibrant, energetic man whose life story will fascinate anyone with an interest in a range of subjects from Victorian history to science, or simply in learning about a remarkable man.

If you are interested in reading a more modern take on Kelvin's life, there are a handful of newer biographies available, such as Degrees Kelvin by David Lindley, Energy and Empire by Crosbie Smith and M. Norton Wise, and Lord Kelvin, the Dynamic Victorian by Harold Issadore Sharlin. (Regrettably, the last two biographies are currently out-of-print.) All three of these modern biographies are excellent in their own right, and all are required reading for anyone with an interest in Kelvin. However, they lack the emotional intimacy and passion to be found in Thompson's biography. Reading the letters that Kelvin wrote, and what people thought about him at the time, gives you a glimpse into the soul of a man more profound and compelling than any retelling of Kelvin's life, no matter how expertly wrought such a biography is. As such, the American Mathematical Society (AMS) has done the world a great service by reissuing Thompson's The Life of Lord Kelvin. Accessible to readers of every ilk, this biography deserves a place of honor in every high school and college library. As well, if you happen to have a budding scientist in your home, be sure to place of copy of this book within their grasp. They cannot help, but be inspired by Kelvin's story.

As a side note, the AMS edition of The Life of Lord Kelvin is presented in two easy to handle, hard-backed volumes of about 600 pages each. Copies of the original illustrations have been included, and most important, especially for those of us whose eyes are not as young as we would like them to be - this edition features a nice, clear, dark, and approximately 13 point font size print, relieving many readers from the need to squint or use a magnifier to read this magnificent biography. Of special interest to scholars, this biography is enhanced by the inclusion of a list of honours and distinctions that Kelvin received during his lifetime, including the plethora of honorary doctorates that he received. You'll also find a detailed bibliography of Kelvin's numerous books, articles, and scientific communications as well as a list of Kelvin's patents. In addition, the book's index will easily guide you to any specific information that you happen to be looking for within the pages of this preeminent biography of Lord Kelvin.

This biography is available as a one volume set, as well as in a two volume set. The two volume set can be purchased directly from the AMS bookstore. This review was based upon the two-volume edition, which is identical in content to the one volume edition of The Life of Lord Kelvin.


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


Related Reviews:

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).

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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