Famous Scientists


William Thomson

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William Thomson

Early Life:

William Thomson was born in Belfast, Ireland June 26, 1824 at Baron Kelvin of Largs. William attended Glasgow University from the age of 10. This early age is not quite as unusual as one would think, for at that time the universities in Scotland to some extent competed with the schools for the most able junior pupils. William Thomson graduated from Glasgow and Cambridge showing precocious ability in Mathematics and Physics. He became professor of Natural Philosophy at Glasgow at a very young age.


Contributions and Achievements:

Having studied some of Thomson’s research contributions, let us comment on the innovations he introduced into teaching at the University of Glasgow. He introduced laboratory work into the degree courses, keeping this part of the work distinct from the mathematical side. Another of Thomson’s famous pieces of work was his joint project with Tait to produce their famous text Treatise on Natural Philosophy which they began working on in the early 1860s. They worked by posting a notebook back and forward to each other on this huge project which Thomson envisioned as covering all physical theories.

Thomson achieved his greatest fame through an event that we have still to discuss. He was always greatly interested in the improvement of physical instrumentation, and Thomson designed and implemented many new devices, including the mirror-galvanometer that was used in the first successful sustained telegraph transmissions in transatlantic submarine cable. He was created Lord Kelvin for his work on the first transatlantic cable Thomson had joined a group of industrialists in the mid 1850s on a project to lay a submarine cable between Ireland and Newfoundland. He played several roles in this project, being on the board of directors and also being an advisor on theoretical electrical matters.

He helped develop the second law of thermodynamics but Kelvin argued that the key issue in the interpretation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics was the explanation of irreversible processes. He noted that if entropy always increased, the universe would ultimately reach a state of uniform temperature and maximum entropy from which it would not be possible to extract any work. He called this the Heat Death of the Universe. Therefore he proposed a thermodynamical theory based on the dominance of the energy concept, on which he believed all physics should be based. He said the two laws of thermodynamics expressed the indestructibility and dissipation of energy. By 1847, Thomson had already gained a good reputation as a scientist when he attended the British Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Oxford where he stated”There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”

At that meeting, he heard James Prescott Joule argue for the mutual convertibility of heat and mechanical work and for their mechanical equivalence. In 1848, he provided only an operational definition of temperature. He proposed an absolute temperature scale in which a unit of heat descending from a body A to a body B at the would give out the same mechanical effect, whatever be the number. Such a scale would be quite independent of the physical properties of any specific substance. In his publication, Thomson wrote:

“The conversion of heat (or caloric) into mechanical effect is probably impossible, certainly undiscovered.”

One of the clearest instances of this interaction is in his estimate of the age of the Earth. Given his youthful work on the figure of the Earth and his interest in heat conduction, it is no surprise that he chose to investigate the Earth’s cooling and to make historical inferences of the Earth’s age from his calculations. Thomson was a creationist in a broad sense, but he was not a ‘flood geologist’. He contended that the laws of thermodynamics operated from the birth of the universe and envisaged a dynamic process that saw the organization and evolution of the solar system and other structures, followed by a gradual heat death.

Thomson was also a yachtsman, as he was a lot interested in the sea related stuff. He introduced a method of deep-sea sounding, in which a steel piano wire replaces the ordinary land line. The wire glides so easily to the bottom that “flying soundings” can be taken while the ship is going at full speed. A pressure gauge to register the depth of the sinker was added by Thomson.

Therefore, Thomson’s marvellous pieces of work have no match as they were unique and have helped man in carrying out their daily chores. Like many other scientists some of Thomson’s predictions were proved false but this great man won a number of honorary degrees for his classic work and is ranked among the famous most scientists of history as his remarkable work has become the standard texts for many generations of scientists.


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