Noted science writer Lindley (Boltzman’s Atom, 2001, etc.) chronicles the life of an eminent Victorian scientist, in his time considered second only to Newton.
The author picks up the career of William Thomson (1824–1907) upon his arrival at Cambridge. The young man’s father gave him an exceptional head start, taking the family on tours of the continent and teaching them advanced science. At age 16, William published a significant paper on heat flow, a subject soon to blossom into thermodynamics and become one of the foundations of classical physics. Thomson contributed significantly to thermodynamics, even giving it its name, but never developed a full-blown theory of heat. Inability to see the larger implications of his ideas was a characteristic shortcoming, despite an impressive record of success. Accepting a professorship at Glasgow, Thomson supplemented his academic income with practical ventures. He advised the company that laid the first transatlantic telegraph cable, in the process inventing an improved receiver. He developed a compass that became the British naval standard for 40 years. Work like this, which bolstered England’s economic and technological supremacy, led to Thomson’s elevation to the peerage as Lord Kelvin in 1892, the first British scientist to be so honored. But in his practical side lay the seeds of his downfall. Thomson questioned geologists’ estimates of the age of the earth after calculating (correctly, given the energy sources known at the time) that the sun’s total lifetime could be only a few million years. When the discovery of radioactivity showed a way out of the impasse, he refused to amend his position. This failure of imagination made him a scientific fossil, the embodiment of classical physics just as its edifice began to crumble. 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.