William Thomson, Lord Kelvin

views updated

William Thomson, Lord Kelvin


British Physicist

William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, conducted important work in the areas of thermodynamics and electrical theory. Strongly influenced by the more mathematical French style of physics, Kelvin's own work was heavily mathematical and was influential in encouraging other British physicists to follow this example. Kelvin's work in the study of heat led to the development of the Kelvin scale of temperature, the standard of measurement still used by scientists around the world.

Kelvin was born in Belfast, Ireland. When Kelvin was eight years old, his father, a professor of engineering, accepted a position teaching mathematics at the University of Glasgow, where Kelvin began his studies at age 10. At age 15 Kelvin won a gold medal from the University of Glasgow for his paper, "Essay on the Figure of the Earth."

Kelvin was deeply impressed by the French mathematical approach towards describing the physical world. He first read The Analytical Theory of Heat by Jean Baptiste Fourier (1768-1830), in which the author used rigorous mathematics to describe the flow of heat. Further reading of works by Pierre Simon Laplace (1749-1827), Augustin Fresnel (1788-1827), Joseph Louis Lagrange (1736-1813), Adrien-Marie Legendre (1752-1833), and other French scientists made a continuing impact on Kelvin, leading to his relocation to Paris after graduation. There Kelvin worked with a number of influential physicists, eventually mastering this approach to physics. In Paris Kelvin was also introduced to the concept of applying similar mathematical techniques to a wide variety of problems, ranging from heat transfer to fluid dynamics, electricity, and magnetism. His embrace of mathematics as a means to describe the physical world helped to turn physics into the science it is today, using math to predict, describe, and explain the world and universe that surrounds us.

In 1846 Kelvin's father arranged for him to be a favored candidate for a vacant position at the University of Glasgow. Selected to fill the spot, Kelvin began to collaborate with George Stokes (1819-1903) on theories of turbulence and other problems in hydrodynamics. Like many of Kelvin's inquiries into thermodynamics and electricity, much of this research led to nothing. However, his researches in thermodynamics led to proposing an absolute scale for temperature measurement, now known as the Kelvin scale, with units of degrees Kelvin.

Although many of Kelvin's research efforts were later deemed unsuccessful, he accomplished a great deal by initiating lines of research that later proved fruitful to others. In addition, he had a knack for developing laboratory equipment that could be used commercially. This proved valuable when Kelvin agreed to participate in efforts to establish a transatlantic submarine telegraph cable. Kelvin's instruments helped the first cable to successfully transmit telegraphic messages. Further cables relied even more heavily upon Kelvin's inventions and, as a result, Kelvin was knighted in 1866 and became wealthy from the sale of his electrical devices. He was later made Lord Kelvin, Baron of Largs, for his service to Britain.

Kelvin also weighed in on the losing side of many scientific arguments. He opposed Darwin's evolutionary theories, Rutherford's ideas regarding radioactive decay, and the idea of atoms. He also devoted much time to arriving at wildly erroneous proposals for the age of the Earth. These errors, however, do not detract from Kelvin's legitimate place as one of the great physicists of the nineteenth century.

During the latter part of his life, Kelvin received numerous accolades and awards. He published over 600 scientific papers, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (from which he received two prestigious awards), was named President of the London Maths Society, and served three terms as President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He was also elected president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1871. William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, died in 1907 at the age of 83.


About this article

William Thomson, Lord Kelvin

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article