Saturday, February 21, 2004


By David Lindley

Joseph Henry Press, $27.95, 366 pages


Bright and extremely energetic, Lord Kelvin was a scientific star of the 20th century. As a theoretician and inventor of the first magnitude, his brilliance earned him wealth and accolades.

Yet towards the end of it, his instincts — though not his intellect — left him. Several of his scientific pronouncements proved spectacularly wrong, and as a consequence, he seemed to have more hot air than insight. Today, less than a century after his passing, Lord Kelvin has almost been forgotten.

In “Degrees Kelvin: A Tale of Genius, Invention, and Tragedy,” David Lindley describes the life of Kelvin, examines his theories and works, and attempts to explain why the hot young star became a disappointed old crank. While Mr. Lindley’s scholarship is impressive, his book is a toilsome read due to its significant structural defects.

Lord Kelvin was born a Scottish commoner named William Thomson in 1824. His father, a professor of mathematics at Glasgow University, recognized his son’s prodigious mathematical talents early on, and helped him publish his first paper in a mathematical journal before he had even started his freshman year at Cambridge. At age 22 Thomson became a professor at Glasgow University, where he remained over 50 years.

In his professorial capacity, Thomson did a great deal of work on heat and electricity. He had a significant role in shaping the laws of thermodynamics, particularly the principle of conservation of energy. He attempted to calculate the age of the earth from its estimated rate of cooling and proposed the absolute temperature scale that still bears his name. He was also a co-author of one of the first physics textbooks.

Yet Thomson was far more than an academic. As Mr. Lindley points out, he was “scientist and technologist, academic and entrepreneur, a philosopher and a practical man rolled into one.” He bubbled with energy, and was constantly on the go, lecturing, consulting, inventing, discovering. His peerage was actually awarded for the critical assistance he gave in the laying of the first trans-Atlantic cable.

Several of his inventions were commercial successes, including his reflecting galvanometer, which was used for detecting and measuring faint electrical signals from telegraphic cable, and his magnetic compass, which was eventually adopted by the British navy.

Unfortunately, neither his intellect nor his energy could save him from being terribly wrong on several points. He never fully accepted James Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism and was not certain about the existence of atoms. About 10 years before his death in 1907, Lord Kelvin claimed that “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”

In 1900, he told the British Association for the Advancement of Science, “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”

Mr. Lindley covers all of this in detail — particularly the development of Lord Kelvin’s ideas and his interactions with his scientific peers. However, unlike “Empires of Light” by Jill Jonnes, another biography of three physicists and inventors from the same era, “Degrees Kelvin” never stays focused on a single subject for long.

Part of the problem is that each chapter is voluminous — only six break up a book over 300 pages in length. A great amount of information is packed into each one of them, but much more space seems to be spent on discussions of scientific theory than on actual biography.

Just as frustratingly, the content wanders between the two with little rhythm or reason. For instance, in the penultimate chapter of the book, Mr. Lindley describes the years Lord Kelvin spent perfecting his sailing compass. While doing so, he covers several other subjects, such as a debate between two of Kelvin’s contemporaries over who deserved credit for discovering the laws of thermodynamics and an analysis of the difficulties navigators experienced using magnetic compasses in an age of ironclads.

This chapter also describes Thomson’s course through middle age (including his second marriage), his visits to America and his disagreements with James Maxwell’s wave theory of light.

Occasionally, there’s a delightful digression. Anyone who thinks that a “senior wrangler” is an elderly cowboy will enjoy the book’s explanation of the wrangler system in British universities. Mr. Lindley interrupts a meandering on James Joule to note that an invisible line bisects the United Kingdom: “South of this division, people eat breakfast, then lunch, then dinner; to the north they take breakfast, dinner, and tea. Incalculable social consequences follow.” Unfortunately, such flashes of insight tend to be oases in a desert of dry theory.

That dry weight is bulky for a biography, but worse, the book barely covers the bookends of its protagonist’s life. The first chapter opens with Thomson already at Cambridge — his birth is not mentioned, and the book is almost bereft of anything about the first few years of his life.

The last pages of the final chapter cover the controversy about radioactivity that was burning through the physics community at the turn of the last century. Lord Kelvin’s death is only covered in the epilogue, and several paragraphs pass between the description of his passing and mention of the age at which he passed.

Mr. Lindley never fully answers the question of why his protagonist went so sadly wrong, although that could be because he simply cannot. Like many afflicted with tragedy, Lord Kelvin was a complex figure. Mr. Lindley hints that his fall might have been hubris, and suggests it could have been his love of mechanistic models of reality that clashed with the emerging physics of the 1900s. What is evident is that although Lord Kelvin’s intellect rarely faltered, his judgment truly failed.

The same could be said for Mr. Lindley, who received plaudits for his previous histories of 20th-century physics. Unfortunately, this book is not up to their stellar quality. It might be enjoyed by historians of science or students of thermodynamic theory, but lay readers anxious to learn more about the era (or even about Lord Kelvin) should probably turn elsewhere.

Charles Rousseaux is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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