LORD KELVIN. In 1840, a precocious 16-year-old by the name of William Thomson spent his summer vacation studying an extraordinarily sophisticated mathematical controversy. His brilliant analysis inspired lavish praise and made the boy an instant intellectual celebrity.
As a young scholar William dazzled a Victorian society enthralled with the seductive authority and powerful beauty of scientific discovery. At a time when no one really understood heat, light, electricity, or magnetism, Thomson found key connections between them, laying the groundwork for two of the cornerstones of 19th century science -- the theories of electromagnetism and thermodynamics.
Charismatic, confident, and boyishly handsome, Thomson was not a scientist who labored quietly in a lab, plying his trade in monkish isolation. When scores of able tinkerers were flummoxed by their inability to adapt overland telegraphic cables to underwater, intercontinental use, Thomson took to the high seas with new equipment that was to change the face of modern communications. And as the world s navies were transitioning from wooden to iron ships, they looked to Thomson to devise a compass that would hold true even when surrounded by steel.
Gaining fame and wealth through his inventive genius, Thomson was elevated to the peerage by Queen Victoria for his many achievements. He was the first scientist ever to be so honored. Indeed, his name survives in the designation of degrees Kelvin, the temperature scale that begins with absolute zero, the point at which atomic motion ceases and there is a complete absence of heat. Sir William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, was Great Britain's unrivaled scientific hero.
But as the century drew to a close and Queen Victoria's reign ended, this legendary scientific mind began to weaken. He grudgingly gave way to others with a keener, more modern vision. But the great physicist did not go quietly. With a ready pulpit at his disposal, he publicly proclaimed his doubts over the existence of atoms. He refused to believe that radioactivity involved the transmutation of elements. And believing that the origin of life was a matter beyond the expertise of science and better left to theologians, he vehemently opposed the doctrines of evolution, repeatedly railing against Charles Darwin. Sadly, this pioneer of modern science spent his waning years arguing that the Earth and the Sun could not be more than 100 million years old. And although his early mathematical prowess had transformed our understanding of the forces of nature, he would never truly accept the revolutionary changes he had helped bring about, and it was others who took his ideas to their logical conclusion.
In the end Thomson came to stand for all that was old and complacent in the world of 19th century science. Once a scientific force to be reckoned with, a leader to whom others eagerly looked for answers, his peers in the end left him behind -- and then meted out the ultimate punishment for not being able to keep step with them. For while they were content to bury him in Westminster Abbey alongside Isaac Newton, they used his death as an opportunity to write him out of the scientific record, effectively denying him his place in history. Kelvin s name soon faded from the headlines, his seminal ideas forgotten, his crucial contributions overshadowed.
Destined to become the definitive biography of one of the most important figures in modern science, Degrees Kelvin unravels the mystery of a life composed of equal parts triumph and tragedy, hubris and humility, yielding a surprising and compelling portrait of a complex and enigmatic man.
"...a lively biography of a brilliant man. Through newspaper accounts, letters and personal recollections, Lindley brings to vibrant life Thomson's large family, his days at Cambridge University and the travails of young people seeking their way in a 19th-century world. Above all, Lindley shows us an era in which people looked optimistically to technology and science as powerful tools to transform the world. ... Rich in detail and personal account, Lindley's book is also strewn with clear descriptions of the science that defined Lord Kelvin's day. ... Degrees Kelvin offers a terrific journey through that era of discovery."
-- San Diego Union Tribune, February 29, 2004
"[Lindley] brings Kelvin to life in this excellent biography."
-- Scientific American, April 2004
"Degrees Kelvin is a lovely book, and also a most welcome one. ... Any list of all-time great physicists will include a large number of [Kelvin's] contemporaries, and Thomson stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of them. Physicist and writer David Lindley offers nonspecialists an engaging and informative account of Thomson's personal life and scientific career. ... An enjoyable aspect of Lindley's account is that in the course of placing Thomson's life and work in context, he introduces readers to several of his subject's illustrious contemporaries and their work."
-- Science, September 3, 2004
"A lively, well-written biography of William Thomson. ... Lindley provides a lucid account of [Thomson's accomplishments] and also gives us a feel for Thomson's mental habits and character. ... A splendid book."
-- Physics Today, March 2005
"Lindley deftly interweaves accounts of Thomson's scientific career, his relations with his contemporaries, and his personal life, always cocking an eye to the larger historical picture. Sympathetic study of a man whose achievements were overshadowed by his inability to understand how science was changing."
-- Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 2003
"In his thoroughly engaging biography, Lindley expertly examines Kelvin's life and the thought processes of this mathematical genius as well as providing a rich overview of physics as it was created from what had been known as 'natural philosophy.' Lindley also does a superb job of explaining how, over the course of his life and by sticking to his basic scientific principles, Kelvin changed from an extraordinarily creative theoretician, in both the pure and the applied realms, to a scientific anachronism, defending outmoded ideas and refusing to accept new concepts. Lindley provides insight into a misunderstood scientific legend and into the process of science itself at a critical period of history."
-- Publishers Weekly, December 22, 2003
"...a fine survey of Lord Kelvin's life for a general audience. ... Lindley's story of this remarkable life goes admirably beyond the ideas of science and engineering to reveal much of the day-to-day Kelvin. ... Lindley does a splendid job of explaining the scientific and technological concepts for a general audience..."
-- Nature, April 22, 2004
"Lindley looks to revive some of Kelvin's legacy and eloquently does so while explaining the scientific principles that Kelvin discovered."
-- Science News, April 17, 2004
"[Kelvin's] story [is] superbly told by David Lindley ... A fascinating biography."
-- The Chapel Hill News, January 12, 2005
"...a book of considerable charm, while also presenting a very well-rounded portrait of a most Victorian, talented, complex individual of mixed achievement. ... As a book that gives pleasure to the reader I recommend it highly. ...I guarantee that you will enjoy this book, which not only thoroughly explores [Kelvin's] life but offers as well a brilliant picture of the physics world of the late Nineteenth and very early Twentieth century."
-- Benjamin Bederson in the History of Physics Newsletter, Fall 2004
"[Lindley] convinces his readers that Kelvin's career of vociferous opinions and peripatetic activity was a life of great contributions and personal satisfaction. ... [Lindley has a] talent and passion for bringing science to the layman."
-- Chemical & Engineering News, August 30, 2004
"In Degrees Kelvin, David Lindley seeks to reconcile two pictures of Lord Kelvin -- the famous, brilliant quick-witted physicist and the crank. With a rare combination of insight and technical understanding, Lindley eventually produces a picture of Kelvin that is clear about both Kelvin's strengths and his weaknesses. Kelvin's prominent role in the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cables gives the reader an excellent vantage point on one of the greatest technical achievements of the nineteenth century. The combination of skullduggery and physics is irresistible, and Lindley ably sketches the other characters involved in the project. ...the author produces an entertaining picture of both the man and his times. A book about a physicist would be incomplete without physics, and Lindley is in his element when describing Kelvin's theories, their genesis and their impact. He provides enough detail to be interesting without being overwhelming to those who lack Lindley's specialist background. The result is a book that is engaging, illuminating..."
-- Curled Up With a Good Book, May 2004
"Lindley's account of Thomson's life and career alternates in the telling between discussions of science and of personality. The former will be appreciated by readers with some scientific background... There are, too, rewarding accounts of the various luminaries with whom Thomson came into contact, such as the autodidact Michael Faraday (whose accomplishments and personality have clearly impressed the author). ... [Kelvin] seems to have been a wholly fascinating figure, and Lindley does a service in making his story available to readers."
-- book blog reviews, August 14, 2004
"...a detailed, clear account of Thomson's scientific and engineering works. ... This biography is a good read with a lively pace, especially in the technical descriptions and explanations."
-- History: Reviews of New Books, Summer 2004
"[Thomson's] intellectual foibles, as well as Thomson's publicly visible work on the first transatlantic telegraph, furnish the raw material that a good biographer can make interesting. This Lindley is, and does. Supremely self-confident, Thomson, in Lindley s portrait, takes shape as remarkably inventive but unable to detach himself from a classical, mechanistic view, which the younger generation of physicists were able to do. Wherever science biographies are popular, Lindley's perceptive work will be, too."
-- Booklist, February 1, 2004
"...Lindley's book reconciles all the facets of Kelvin's personal and professional life, from brilliant forward-thinker to engineer to opinionated old man, and gives an insightful account of the career of this 19th century scientific hero."
-- FTL Design: History of the Atlantic Cable and & Submarine Telegraphy
"Having achieved some acclaim for [his earlier science books], Lindley -- an astrophysicist by training -- will certainly receive more with this latest effort. ... Understandable to the informed reader, this work will deepen science students' appreciation of the individual behind the science they are learning."
-- Library Journal, February 1, 2004
"...[a] brilliantly developed biography...[Degrees Kelvin] is the fall of a brilliant life told compellingly and compassionately by an entertaining and convincing storyteller."
-- ForeWord Magazine, March/April 2004
"...[an] accessibly written biography..."
-- Book News, June 2004
"...Mr. Lindley's scholarship is impressive..."
-- The Washington Times, February 22, 2004
"Mr. Lindley has written well of a 19th-century man baffled by scientific developments that became crucial to the 20th century."
-- Dallas Morning News, June 20, 2004
"As Lindley impressively shows, Thomson thought incessantly and productively. ... Lindley treats with lucid precision Thomson's part in scientific debates and projects of the time. ... Lindley thoughtfully evaluates the 'tragedy': Thomson's decline into relative obscurity."
-- Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2004
"David Lindley has done a superb job telling the fascinating story of Lord Kelvin, and has produced one of the most interesting scientist biographies ever written. Excellent book. Very well written."
-- Amir D. Aczel, author of Pendulum: Leon Foucault and the Triumph of Science and Fermat's Last Theorem: Unlocking the Secret of an Ancient Mathematical Problem
"Lord Kelvin had one of the greatest scientific minds of the 19th century and Degrees Kelvin is a first rate biography of him and his world."
-- John Steele Gordon, author of A Thread Across the Ocean
"...Lindley presents this history well and compactly. ... a good, fairly quick introduction to Lord Kelvin and his major contributions (and mistakes)."
-- Complete Reviews, April 2004
"[Lord Kelvin] seems to have been a wholly fascinating figure, and Lindley does a service in making his story available to readers."
-- Reviewer's Bookwatch, September 2004
"This is a noble attempt to resurrect the posthumous reputation of a great scientist from the oblivion to which he has been unfairly consigned. If it can also explain the concept of Absolute Zero to a confirmed non-scientist such as myself, it deserves to succeed."
-- Daily Mail, September 10, 2004
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