Degrees Kelvin – David Lindley

Degrees Kelvin – by David Lindley
Date read: 9/25/19. Recommendation: 7/10.

A biography of mathematical physicist and engineer, Sir William Thomson (1824-1907). This is a challenging read to get through, especially if you’re not well-versed in thermodynamics or electromagnetism (I’m not). But there’s a compelling story at the heart of Thomson’s life, and that’s what kept me going. Thomson was undeniably brilliant. At 22 he was appointed chair of natural philosophy at Glasgow, and by 31 he helped lay the foundations of thermodynamics. But his early brilliance turned into resistance and obstructionism as he grew older. He refused to keep up with the times and grew out of touch with the latest developments in science. He was remarkably and adamantly wrong about quite a few important topics: he doubted the existence of atoms, believed earth was no more than 100 million years old, and had reservations about radioactivity. Thomson’s story is a cautionary tale of clinging to an antiquated worldview. Everyone tends to think their formative years were sacred. Don’t fall into this trap. If you cling to your era and your generation too tightly, you blind yourself to new ideas.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.

My Notes:

Sir William Thomson (1824-1907), first British scientist to be elevated to the House of Lords (Lord Kelvin). At 22 became the professor of natural philosophy at Glasgow which he would hold for more than 50 years.

Combining theoretical with practical:
In 1845, Kelvin worked in the Paris laboratory of Victor Regnault to measure the thermal properties of steam and improve steam engine design. Steam power was critical during the industrial revolution. Opened Kelvin’s eyes to practical science and the implications of the theory of heat in technology. Shifted from a mathematician to a scientist during this time. 

Telegraphy introduced him to a world of innovation and patents that helped him generate money through consulting and advising. Mixed science with business meetings. Made his mark in the world of commerce and enterprise. 

Kelvin was a scientist + technologist, academic + entrepreneur, philosopher + practical thinker. 

Divide in his reputation (from young to old):
In newspapers and publications, his scientific knowledge was remarkable. At meetings and conferences, he was a crank. 

Refused to keep up with the times and grew out of touch with the latest developments in science. And he was remarkably wrong about quite a few important topics: doubted the existence of atoms, believed earth was no more than 100 million years old, had reservations about radioactivity. 

And he was relentless in his defense of incorrect positions such as the 100m year assessment of earth. Wrote to the London Times in 1906 arguing against radioactivity (even though it was widely accepted that radioactive decay involved the transmutation of one element into another). 

Everyone tends to think their formative years were sacred, don’t fall into this trap. Don’t cling to your era and your generation too tightly or you blind yourself to the latest developments. Kelvin is a perfect example of someone who grew out of touch as the years passed.

Brilliance at a young age (laying foundations of thermodynamics all before he turned 31, exploring the nature of electricity and magnetism) turned into resistance and obstructionism as he grew older. 

Took a very “mechanical” view of the universe that limited his imagination and rendered him an antique. 

Michael Faraday:
Part of Kelvin’s brilliance and folly was the fact that he couldn’t understand or contemplate an idea until he was able to put it in a mathematical form. Michael Faraday, by contrast, took a complete opposite approach because he didn’t know mathematics. Faraday’s power was one of pure imagination - he devised theories in pictures

At 13, Faraday apprenticed under a bookseller and read whatever he could get his hands on. Electricity and chemistry peaked his interest, bought glass jars, and began to run his own experiments. He was fanatical and orderly in taking notes. Completely dedicated to self-improvement. Similar narrative to Benjamin Franklin.

Drawdown periods and isolation: Faraday wasn’t a regular at meetings and conferences and he turned down numerous offers for professorial positions. “After spending his early research years mainly on chemical work (notably he succeeded in liquefying chlorine), he moved into electrochemistry (reactions stimulated by the passage of electric current through solutions) and thence into his pioneering and utterly original studies of electricity and magnetism.” DL

Vision: Faraday shaped modern view of electromagnetic field more than anyone else. “He was a magnificent experimenter, but guiding his experiments was a powerful vision of electromagnetism. He had one of the great theoretical minds in physics.” DL (this is what Kelvin lacked)

Constructing a theory:
Kelvin’s method: “Apply sound reasoning to empirical knowledge and thereby create a theory that was sweeping and general but at the same time founded on fact.” DL

“He had an exceptional ability to sort and clarify, to resolve confusion and contradiction, and many of the standard elements of classical thermodynamics trace back to his definitions and arguments.” DL

Development of thermodynamics:
Great example of how murky discoveries in science can be. Rarely can one person be credited with a discovery. Rankine, Thomson, Clausius, Carnot, Joule, all made major contributions. Helped establish thermodynamics as a fundamental discipline of physical science.