Ivan Ruddock: review

March 4, 2005

Lord Kelvin: Revolutionary Scientist. The Hunterian Museum, Glasgow University

In 1834, a ten-year-old boy enrolled as a student at Glasgow University. Aged 17, he moved to Cambridge University, where he published the first dozen scientific papers of the 600 or so he would eventually write. He went on to hold the chair of natural philosophy back at Glasgow for 53 years.

By the time of his death in 1907, William Thomson, Baron Kelvin of Largs, had been knighted and then raised to the peerage, been bestowed with numerous decorations and honorary degrees, and had presided over the Royal Society and the British Association. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, close to Sir Isaac Newton, and was commemorated with statues in Belfast, the city of his birth, and Glasgow.

It was not for one crowning achievement that Kelvin was recognised, he excelled in so many things. He dominated the evolution of the understanding of mechanics, heat, electricity and magnetism (in short, classical physics) and in doing so laid the foundations of engineering that subsequently revolutionised the world. His knighthood was for his contributions to the laying of the first successful transatlantic telegraph cable, and his peerage was linked to his involvement in the Irish Home Rule debate.

Lord Kelvin: Revolutionary Scientist is an exhibition that seeks to restore public recognition to one of Glasgow's most distinguished former citizens.

Items drawn from the Kelvin archive are used to illustrate his achievements in academia, science, engineering and commerce. The main strands of his story are represented - his private life, teaching, scientific collaboration, the electric telegraph, electrical measurement and safety at sea - with displays ranging from a bed spring-like wire model of close packed tetrakaidekahedrons to Kelvin's coronet and decorations.

The scientific instruments reflect his important role in measuring physical quantities. A few speak also of his entrepreneurial spirit, bearing the mark of the firm Kelvin and White. Video screens provide easily navigable narratives about his life, while the many hands-on physics demonstrations will inform and entertain all ages.

The displays are unlikely, however, to give the casual visitor with little sense of the significance and breadth of Kelvin's career a full appreciation of the man's importance.

There is little sense of entering the presence of a major historical figure. Perhaps the presentation is partly responsible - the display cabinets are arranged in an unimaginative traditional manner in a gallery lit by natural light from just one side.

Kelvin's reputation does need restoring. In the 19th century, he was recognised as probably the greatest living scientist and engineer. But at the end of the 20th century, his name did not appear in an Institute of Physics poll of all-time great physicists.

In his prime, Kelvin pioneered the theories of heat and electromagnetism. But he was reluctant to accept the new, esoteric physics that emerged in his last years. A reason for that is suggested by the caption for a collection of teaching aids: "I am never content until I have constructed a mechanical model of the subject I am studying. If I succeed in making one, I understand. Otherwise I do not."

Lord Kelvin: Revolutionary Scientist aims to re-establish his position as the most productive and inventive natural philosopher of his era. Unfortunately, it is not wholly successful in doing so.

Ivan Ruddock is reader in physics at Strathclyde University.

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