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September 22/29, 2004


JAMA. 2004;292(12):1494-1495. doi:10.1001/jama.292.12.1494

William Thomson (1824-1907), later known as Lord Kelvin, was a consummate exponent of 19th-century physical sciences. Trained at Cambridge University, this precocious mathematician taught for more than 60 years at the University of Glasgow. His genius and that of his contemporaries laid the basis for fundamentals of thermodynamics and electromagnetism.

Thomson proposed an absolute temperature scale and collaborated on establishing electromagnetic metrics. He was instrumental in improving submarine cable telegraphic transmission and transoceanic navigational systems. In 1892 he became the first British scientist—nay, natural philosopher—to receive a peerage from Queen Victoria. He interacted with many scientific luminaries of that period, including Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley. He socialized with Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Carnegie, George Eastman, Alexander Graham Bell, and George Westinghouse. He accumulated honors, medals, and titles through science and wealth through discoveries, patents, and consultations. This pallid school curriculum biography acquires life, luster, and energy in David Lindley's Degrees Kelvin. Lindley, an astrophysicist and science writer, has choreographed a very readable story of an amiable prodigy with inexplicable failings.

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