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Degrees Kelvin:: A Tale of Genius, Invention, and Tragedy 1st Edition

16 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0309090735
ISBN-10: 0309090733
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, was one of the 19th century's best-known scientists and inventors. As Lindley (Boltzmann's Atom; The End of Physics; etc.) so comprehensively explains, Kelvin (1824 1907) was largely responsible for the creation of the twin fields of electromagnetism and thermodynamics, and played a significant role in connecting England and America by transatlantic telegraph cable. Kelvin's work was so important and he was so well known that he became the first British scientist elevated to the peerage, and when he died, he was buried in Westminster Abbey near Isaac Newton. Yet, unlike other scientists of his and earlier times, Kelvin is no longer a household name. 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.
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From Scientific American

William Thomson, Lord Kelvin (1824–1907), made major contributions to 19th-century physics and technology but is mainly known today through the attachment of his name to a scale of temperature. Lindley, an astrophysicist who now focuses on writing about science, brings Kelvin to life in this excellent biography. The young Kelvin, Lindley writes, "made astonishing progress in the quest to understand the nature of heat, work, and energy, and in the parallel effort to elucidate the nature of electricity and magnetism." Kelvin's theory of undersea signal transmission was fundamental for the installation of transatlantic cables, and he was involved in work on power generation and navigation instruments. The "tragedy" of the book's title is that the old Kelvin became something of a crank, sticking "with blind stubbornness" to ideas about radioactivity, electromagnetism and the age of the earth in the face of contrary evidence accumulating at the turn of the century. But if Kelvin could come back today, Lindley says, he "would after being taken aback by the dizzying scope of modern theoretical physics decide that, after all, it was exactly what he had been trying to say."

Editors of Scientific American


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 392 pages
  • Publisher: Joseph Henry Press; 1 edition (February 10, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0309090733
  • ISBN-13: 978-0309090735
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.3 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #182,408 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Donald B. Siano on March 23, 2004
Format: Hardcover
The author has done a fine job in bringing this man, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) to life. He was one of the primary movers of the scientific world of the Victorian era, and much can be learned of the development of the physical sciences through a study of his methods, personal interactions, and achievements.
Thomson was one of the dozen or so illustrious men, almost entirely British, Scottish, German and French, who developed the central ideas of thermodynamics and electromagnetism in the middle of the 19th century. His particular contribution, among many, was to popularize and further develop the ideas of the Frenchman, Carnot, of the famous reversible heat engine. This was to lead ultimately to the discovery of the absolute temperature scale, now named for him, and to entropy. In electromagnetism, he stood between the non-mathematical insights of Faraday, and the highly mathematical formulation of Maxwell and Heaviside, which has changed little in its fundamental approach, and is still taught to sophomores today. In fact, he and a friend wrote the first recognizable classical physics textbook for undergraduates. And he played a big role as a consultant/inventor for the first transatlantic telegraph cable, a story well told here and in Gordon's recent "Thread Across the Ocean."
Thomson was something of a prodigy, gathering honors and publications at a very young age, but later in life his productivity fell off into an idosyncratic crankiness. His required approach to problems was to devise mechanical analogs for phenomena, which turned out to be too limited to arrive at a full field theory of electromagnetism and atomism, neither of which he ever accepted fully.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Debra Hamel VINE VOICE on August 14, 2004
Format: Hardcover
British physicist Sir William Thomson, better known to history as Lord Kelvin, was among the most brilliant scientists of the 19th century. Already a published author upon his arrival at Cambridge as an undergraduate (in 1841), Thomson went on to a distinguished career during which he made advances in the studies of electricity and magnetism, heat and light, as well as establishing the existence of an absolute zero--the work with which he is probably most readily identified. But Thomson was, above all else, a practical thinker who most enjoyed applying scientific principles to the solution of real-life problems. Thus, while involved in the various attempts that were made to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable, Thomson invented the mirror galvanometer, a more sensitive instrument for receiving electronic pulses than had previously been available. Likewise, Thomson's interest in sailing led to his invention of sounding machines for aid in navigation and the design of a more reliable naval compass.

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, but Lindley does not dumb down his technical discussions sufficiently for the aid of the general reader. Far more accessible is Lindley's discussion of Kelvin's life outside of the laboratory, as for example his account of the subtle battle between the young William and his somewhat domineering father James--over the former's expenses, attentiveness to school work, social contacts, moral probity, exercise, conduct of professional relationships, and so on.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By STEPHEN PLETKO on February 1, 2005
Format: Hardcover

When I was in high school, the only thing I knew about a "Kelvin" was that it was associated with a temperature scale that was expressed in Kelvin units (symbol: K). That is, the lowest temperature possible known as "absolute zero" is 0 degrees K (minus 273.15 degrees Celsius). And that's it! I never realized that this was a way to honor a scientific genius named Lord Kelvin, originally William Thomson (1824 to 1907).

This detailed, well researched, and easy-to-read book, by Dr. David Lindley, traces the life of this now little-known scientific genius and inventor. But "it was not for science alone that Kelvin became famous but because of the way he brought science into ordinary life." And he brought science into ordinary life by developing numerous useful inventions (which made him a wealthy man). And his legacy continues to this day. For example, "the modern inkjet printer...uses essentially [a] trick that Thomson dreamed up in the 1860s!" Or consider that Lord Kelvin's "ideas and principles [are] still taught today at the core of any course on basic physics."

In fact, Lord Kelvin was so well known in his day that when he died he was buried alongside Isaac Newton. Quite an honor!

Lord Kelvin's life was a fascinating one. In his story, you will encounter other great legends such as Newton, Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell, Cavendish, Charles Coulomb, Pierre Curie, Charles Darwin, and James Clerk Maxwell. He had a broad range of scientific interests. What really intrigued me and what I found totally unexpected were his thoughts on the extraterrestrial origins of life on Earth.

In the center of this book are nine black and white illustrations that I have not seen before. They add another dimension to the book.
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