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History Made by Absolute Zero

August 30, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 35

DEGREES KELVIN: A Tale of Genius, Invention, and Tragedy, by David Lindley, Joseph Henry Press, 2004, 366 pages, $27.95 (ISBN 0-309-09073-3)

The problem with being brilliant, prominent, and opinionated is that sometimes you are wrong--and everybody notices. In 1902, at age 77, William Thomson, ennobled as Lord Kelvin, insisted that Earth is less than 100 million years old, propounded crazy atomic models, denied the process of radioactive decay, and mocked the possibility of travel by air. He was so wrong at the end of his life that the work of his 20s to explore thermodynamics and electromagnetism almost was forgotten by his peers.

In textbooks, Kelvin's historical legacy is absolute zero, –273.15 °C, which he defined, and the Kelvin temperature scale that derives from it. How ironic it is that absolute zero, the point where nothing moves, represents the contributions of a man who was in constant motion and was widely regarded by the press as Britain's greatest scientist since Sir Isaac Newton.

David Lindley, author of "Degrees Kelvin: A Tale of Genius, Invention, and Tragedy," admits that he, too, first saw Kelvin as a tragic character who "put his money on all the wrong horses." But Lindley changed his mind. In the end, he convinces his readers that Kelvin's career of vociferous opinions and peripatetic activity was a life of great contributions and personal satisfaction.

Kelvin suffered--and profited--from hyperactivity. He was always pursuing several goals at once: teaching classes, writing, seeking patents, advising the British Admiralty, chasing scientific theories, and traveling incessantly. He abruptly withdrew from dinner conversations to jot down equations and ideas in his signature green notebooks. If he had 15 minutes to spare, he worked on proofs for his physics textbook, the first of its kind.

He admitted: "As I have so many engagements, and so much laboratory work, that I am kept constantly standing and walking about, I can seldom sit down to write anything and am obliged to do nearly everything I wish in black and white by dictation."

The upside of this constant motion was that Kelvin made contributions in many fields. He published a mathematical paper elucidating Fourier's wave series while still in his teens. Kelvin and others formulated the laws of thermodynamics. Kelvin used advanced geometry to quantify Faraday's visual descriptions of electricity. He solved problems of the trans-Atlantic telegraph, ranging from snapping cables to faint transmissions. When variable copper cables distorted messages, he pioneered industrial quality controls.

He also invented a water tap that didn't leak, a more accurate nautical compass, and a mechanical calculator to predict tides. He forged international consensus on the definition and naming of the ohm, ampere, volt, and coulomb. An experiential learner, he changed the way university physics was taught, taking it out of the lecture hall and into the lab.

The downside of Kelvin's ever-changing focus was that he never developed his early promise in theoretical physics. Some commentators think it tragic that Kelvin's precocious genius ended in erroneous theories and distracting inventions. Lindley disagrees.

Like Kelvin, Lindley sought broader venues than university research. After positions in astrophysics at the University of Cambridge and at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab, Lindley turned to science writing. His books tackle topics from quantum mechanics to dinosaur DNA, demonstrating his talent and passion for bringing science to the layman. Lindley understands Kelvin's choice of notoriety and excitement over introspection and caution. Kelvin moved at full throttle, constantly generating ideas, inventions, and enthusiasm. He wouldn't have had it any other way.

Beth Tueller studied biology and history at Wellesley College and Brigham Young University and is a stay-at-home mom in Laie, Hawaii, with four daughters and a lucky husband.


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