One of NI's Most Successful Scientists

Lord Kelvin - 'There is nothing new to be discovered in physics'

One of the most distinguished scientists of the modern age Lord Kelvin (real name William Thomson) was a monumentally accomplished theorist and inventor.

Often regarded as 'the father of physics', the Belfast-born lord gained international recognition for his innovations, but it is his work concerning thermodynamics that has truly immortalised his name. Through his pioneering studies and experiments on heat he predicted the birth of the earth and the end of the universe, developed a scale plunging the absolute depths of temperature and helped to link the continents of Europe and America.

From the streets of Belfast to the frozen depths of space, Kelvin helped illuminate the dark mysteries of science.

Born in 1824 at College Square East, William Thomson grew up in an academic family, his father Dr James Thomson served as Professor of Mathematics at the famed Belfast Academical Institution. At the age of six Thomson’s life was turned upside down with the death of his mother, his family relocating to Glasgow in the wake of the tragedy.

Tutored by his father, Thomson emerged as a gifted thinker earning a place at Cambridge and following his studies there he earned the position of Professor of Natural Philosophy in Glasgow University at the remarkably young age of 22.

It was a position he would hold until his retirement over half a century later. A true renaissance man, Thomson was gifted in a bewildering range of subjects from defending the mathematical assertions of Jean Baptiste Fourier to linking the processes of electrostatics and heat conduction. Even in times of stress he unwound by undertaking mathematical studies of the stars, the planets and the solar system.

At first a catalyst and proponent of the assertions of other (often maverick) scientists, Thomson gradually came into his own investigating the theme that would thread through almost all his diverse, seemingly disparate discoveries – heat.

Through investigating the melting point of ice and the effects of sub-zero temperatures, Thomson developed an absolute temperature scale, a system that would be later named the Kelvin scale in his honour.

Determining that absolute zero, the coldest possible point at which no more energy can emit from a body and when atoms oscillate at their least possible frequency, is -273.15°C he formulated an alternative system to Celsius or Fahrenheit.

In Kelvin’s scale absolute zero would occur at 0 degrees thus giving a more methodical means of calculating the exceptionally low temperatures of outer space and the exceptionally high temperatures at the heart of stars and nuclear fission.

Collaborating with Joule, he established kinetic theory which gave rise to the discovery of the Joule-Thomson effect, an essential precedent to the development of refridgeration.

Further investigations lead him to pre-empt the second law of thermodynamics and speculate on the apocalyptic concept of ‘heat death’ – effectively a state where there is no active energy to produce motion or life. Thus Thomson was not only the father of thermo-dynamics but the prophet of the end of the universe.

In the midst of scientific success, however, personal catastrophe loomed. Having unsuccessfully proposed three times to his girlfriend Sabrina Smith, he turned to his second cousin Margaret Crum for affection and became engaged to her just three months after his final proposal to Smith.

The marriage would be ill-fated from the beginning. Having set off together on a honeymoon excursion around the Mediterranean, Margaret was struck down by a mysterious illness that would afflict her for the rest of her life.

For Thomson the next seventeen years would be lived in the shadow of his wife’s slowly deteriorating health. In the winter of 1860 Thomson’s own health would become debilitated when he slipped on ice, whilst curling.

Fracturing his thigh, he was left with a permanent limp, a disability compounded later in life with bouts of facial neuralgia. Yet even in the midst of misfortune his prolific discoveries continued unabated.

The next chapter in his life would be the most prestigous as he turned to another scientific frontier: the sea. Following his development of a submarine telegraph system, his patenting of the mirror galvanometer and the siphon recorder he embarked on the SS Great Eastern in the intrepid task of laying a telegraph cable along the ocean floor to link Europe and North America.

Appointed to the board of directors of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, Thomson set out on the impossible task of placing a cable along the treacherous three-thousand mile seabed. Initial attempts failed and when the cable was lost on the fifth attempt after a distance of 1200 miles the expedition seemed doomed.

Disaster was averted the following year when a new cable was installed and the first cable was recovered providing a link from Valentia Island, Co Kerry, to Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. No longer had the wild Atlantic to be physically traversed, from now on communication could be achieved at the flick of a switch. Globalisation was born.

The accomplishment earned Thomson worldwide acclaim, The Times claiming it was ‘the most wonderful achievement of this victorious century’. And so at the age of 42 Thomson was knighted by Queen Victoria, taking the self-appointed title Baron Kelvin of Largs: 'Kelvin' after the river that runs by the University of Glasgow, 'Largs' from the area of Ayrshire in which he had settled.

Following his wife’s death in 1870 Thompson embarked for a life on the high seas on his 126-ton ship the Lalla Rookh. Several years later he married Fanny Blandy proposing to her in typical fashion by signalling to her shoreward whilst aboard his vessel.

A quiet retirement seemed to beckon but Thomson was ceaseless in his pursuits. He invented an adjustable compass that eventually became standard issue on all British Navy and merchant navy vessels, a means of high speed deep-sea sounding that could be used when the ship was in motion and headed a committee in engineering the power station at the Niagra Falls using Nikolai Tesla’s maverick AC power system rather than the traditional DC transmission.

Whilst history has proved Thomson to be a truly remarkable visionary some of his more short-sighted pronouncements have gained their own renown.

It would be a cruel taskmaster who’d criticise him for failing to anticipate quantum mechanics or atomic theory when he asserted, ‘There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now’ in 1900.

Other declarations have in hindsight an element of humour -’Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible’ and ‘Radio has no future’ for example were unfortunate statements given the way technology has panned out.

The most controversial of Thomson’s remarks would spark furious debate in academic circles. Calculating the age of the earth as approximately 100 million years by comparing the temperature of the sun to the rate of cooling the planet would have undergone Thomson challenged Darwin’s theory of evolution, arguing that it couldn’t possibly have taken place in that time period.

The debate became extremely heated with Darwin alluding to the genial Thomson as ‘an odious spectre.’ Failing to account for the effects of radiation and swayed by his Christian beliefs Thompson’s estimations were inaccurate yet he did not entertain any of the illusions of ‘Creationism’ or so-called ‘Intelligent Design.’ For all his faith he remained a scientist to his core.

Thomson’s legacy is astonishing. As well as his pioneering work in thermodynamics and linking the telecommunications of Europe and North America he published over 600 papers and patented 70 inventions including the mirror galvanometer, the tide predictor, the harmonic analyser, the adjustable compass, the depth sounder, siphon recorder and the enclosed gyroscope the Gyrostat – memorably invented following a near fatal accident when a high-speed revolving disc shot out during an experiment and sliced through his peer Herman von Helmholtz’s top hat.

Such are his accomplishments remarkable feats such as building the first physics lab in Britain and bringing the first prototypes of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephones from America to Britain are mere asides in Thomson’s legacy.

Not only is the Kelvin the standard scientific measurement system of temperature but there are also a Kelvin Wave, Kelvin Material, Kelvin-Helmholtz instability and a Kelvin-Helmholtz mechanism as well as the Joule-Thomson effect.

His awards and honours were legion - Knight Grand Cross of the Victorian Order, President of the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, recipient of the Royal and Copley medals, Order of the Merit, Privy Counsellor, Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour and the Prussian Order Pour le Mérite.

His greatest honour though would come after his death. In the winter of 1907, having witnessed his wife suffer a series of seizures, Thomson caught a chill, which eventually led to his death. Recognised as a scientific giant he was buried next to, no less than, Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey, London. Having no heirs his title died with him- the first, the last and the only Lord Kelvin.