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the Complete Review
the complete review - science / biography

Degrees Kelvin

David Lindley

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Degrees Kelvin

Title: Degrees Kelvin
Author: David Lindley
Genre: Biography
Written: 2004
Length: 315 pages
Availability: Degrees Kelvin - US
Degrees Kelvin - UK
Degrees Kelvin - Canada
  • A Tale of Genius, Invention, and Tragedy

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Our Assessment:

B : decent introduction

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Scientist . 11-12/2004 Greg Ross
Scientific American . 4/2004 .
The Times . 21/8/2004 Mark Henderson
The Washington Post . 8/2/2004 Gregory Mott
The Washington Times . 22/2/2004 Charles Rousseaux

  From the Reviews:
  • "Lindley wisely refrains from drawing pat conclusions and concentrates instead on the lasting products of Kelvin's gigantic energy" - Greg Ross, American Scientist

  • "Like Galton, Kelvin was a practical man. His advice was vital to the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable, and he invented a reliable compass for ironclad ships -- tales engagingly narrated by David Lindley in Degrees Kelvin." - Mark Henderson, The Times

  • "While Mr. Lindley's scholarship is impressive, his book is a toilsome read due to its significant structural defects. (...) That dry weight is bulky for a biography, but worse, the book barely covers the bookends of its protagonist's life. (...) It might be enjoyed by historians of science or students of thermodynamic theory, but lay readers anxious to learn more about the era (or even about Lord Kelvin) should probably turn elsewhere." - Charles Rousseaux, The Washington Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Lord Kelvin -- born William Thomson -- was one of the leading scientists of his day, but he was also quickly eclipsed and is remembered now almost solely as the person who gave his name to a scale of measuring temperature (hence also the title of this book). David Lindley's biography reminds readers there was more to the man, while also making it clear why his reputation has not fared better over the century since his death.
       Thomson was a child prodigy of sorts, the son of an academic in Glasgow. He began sitting in on his father's classes at age eight, and he was published in the Cambridge Mathematical Journal before he actually began his studies in Cambridge, when he was seventeen. Lindley traces his career, from his Cambridge-days (and the struggle to be senior wrangler, which Thomson didn't quite manage), to his early fascination with the advances in mathematics (and their real-life application) being done in France (and largely ignored in Britain), and then the successful start to his own academic career, appointed professor of natural philosophy at Glasgow when he was just twenty-two.
       Thomson was a hands-on scientist, interested in practical science more than theory:

Science for science's sake could never have been Thomson's motto. he was not, in that sense, an intellectual but rather an astonishingly clever and brilliant man. The point of science was to make things happen, to get things done, to resolve puzzles and difficulties. Above all, Thomson was good at that.
       Lindley drives this point home with chapters devoted to some of Thomson's undertakings, notably his role in the development of underwater and finally transatlantic cables to transmit data, as well as in developing a more reliable compass for use by British ships. Both stories are fascinating, and Lindley presents this history well and compactly. Thomson's role was significant, but still amounted to only a small part of a much bigger story -- but it shows his involvement in a variety of technological endeavours and issues in a time when technology was rapidly changing (and fortunes could be made -- and lost -- with it).
       One of Thomson's earliest, and most lasting, areas of interest was thermodynamics, and he did some of his most significant work in this area. He also made some of his biggest mistakes, most notably in insisting that the earth could be no more than 100,000,000 years old. It was not so much that he was wrong, but that he clung so insistently to his beliefs that was damaging -- though Lindley also shows examples of Thomson being confronted with real-life examples that contradicted some of his claims, and his readily changing his opinion on the spot.
       Thomson was very much a scientist of his times, but not one ahead of them. He did very well within this world, but the rapid-fire advance of physics towards the end of his life and after quickly made most of his accomplishments seem outdated. Lindley conveys this fairly well: Thomson was a man of considerable accomplishment, and he dabbled effectively in many areas, but it didn't make for truly lasting recognition.
       Degrees Kelvin does give a decent picture of the man and his work. Lindley is often better at the surrounding history -- from the Cambridge tripos to the Admiralty's Compass Department -- than the details of Thomson's life, but extensive quotes from Thomson and his contemporaries do give a good enough impression of his work (and, for example, his free-wheeling lecture style). Thomson's personal life crops up now and again, but isn't adequately presented, Lindley not managing to tie it in with the rest of the story particularly well, especially after the death of Thomson's influential and concerned father. Still, it's a good, fairly quick introduction to Lord Kelvin and his major contributions (and mistakes).

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Degrees Kelvin: Reviews: William Thomson (Lord Kelvin): Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       David Lindley was born in 1956. He has written numerous science-related titles.

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© 2004-2022 the complete review

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