Tuesday, May 04, 2004

The Last Natural Philosopher

Degrees Kelvin: A Tail of Genius, Invention, and Tragedy by David Lindley, author of The End of Physics.

The book begins with the 77-year Kelvin given a heroic welcome for his appearance at the University of Rochester. His colleagues and popular opinion had it that his name would survive forever with Newton's. Other than the temperature measurement system starting with absolute zero, I knew nothing about him. Years ago, I'd read James Blaylock's Lord Kelvin's Machine which depicted him as an off-stage genius but I couldn't have told you what he'd invented or discovered.

Kelvin (real name "William Thomson") published his first professional paper on mathematics at 16 and became the cornerstone of "Classical Physics" (heat, light, magnetism, and electricity) before he was 30. His work made the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable possible and created a compass that would work in iron ships (a problem I'd never even thought of). He discovered that heat travels through space like heat through matter which might not have the flair of "E=Mc2" but it was a landmark achievement.

Kelvin did not like the term "scientist," preferring the older term "natural philosopher." This leads into the second-most important aspect of his life.

He didn't accept Maxwell's Theory of Electro-Magnetism; in 1902, he spoke out that air ships would never have practical applications (in a sense he was right; they were replaced by air planes but that's not at all what he meant). He refused to believe in new-fangled notions of atoms and radioactivity.

Of course, he disputed evolution, but more out of legitimate scientific reasons (of the time) instead of religious dogma. He thought the sun could be no more than 100 million years old ("20 million is more realistic").

He agreed with his friend Feeming Jenkin's argument that evolution was impossible, partially for the following racist argument. "If a white man were washed ashore on an isle of savages, his superior traits would swiftly put him in position of king and he would produce more descendants than his peers but his superiority would be diluted over time by breeding with his inferiors." Racist but a real scientific position of the era. Mendel had the answer but, without knowledge of DNA and genetics, no one (not even Darwin) could refute it.

Many people came to view Kelvin as a cranky old coot who didn't believe in anything discovered after he turned 35. Were he alive today, he'd be on the radio ridiculing the idea of global warming, the hole in the ozone layer, or the importance of biodiversity.

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