William Thomson, Lord Kelvin

1824 - 1907
by David F. Coppedge

William Thomson, Scottish physicist, mathematician and engineer, awarded the barony Kelvin of Largs which gave him the more familiar title “Lord Kelvin,” was the most eminent scientist of his day in the British Isles. Professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at the University of Glasgow in Scotland for over 50 years, Lord Kelvin was largely responsible for the rise of engineering, taking the meteoric discoveries being made by 19th century scientists to practical uses for man. He supervised the first successful transatlantic cable that brought instantaneous communication across the ocean for the first time. This succeeded only with his invention of signal amplifiers and sensitive receivers. With James Joule, he discovered the Joule-Thomson effect that ushered in the invention of refrigerators. His name is also commemorated in the Kelvin temperature scale, that begins at absolute zero (a concept he originated), which is widely used in physics and astronomy. Perhaps Lord Kelvin’s most significant achievement was defining the concept of energy and formalizing the laws of thermodynamics. Applying the Second Law to the universe as a whole, he predicted the heat death of the universe in the future, which ruled out an infinitely-old universe.

The Kelvin Scale uses the same gradations as the Celsius Scale, but begins at Absolute Zero, a temperature limit derived by Lord Kelvin.

The Teachable Professor

Everyone has their moments of embarrassment. Historians still get a chuckle out of Kelvin’s statement in a 1902 newspaper interview, “No balloon and no aeroplane will ever be practically successful.” Each of us has made remarks that, in hindsight, we would hastily and silently retract if possible (Kelvin lived to learn of the Wright brothers’ success at Kitty Hawk and the rapid advance of aeroplane technology.) He also thought X-rays were a hoax, but that was before he saw Röntgen’s evidence; later, in 1896, Kelvin had his own hand X-rayed. So he did not remain in error when evidence was forthcoming. Some of Kelvin’s theories about geophysics and atmospheric oxygen did not work out. He never made a big, original breakthrough discovery quite as profound as those of Maxwell, his friend and correspondent. But we quibble about champions. Kelvin earned his place in the hall of fame, as an inventor, co-discoverer of fundamental laws, clarifier of prior discoveries, champion of empiricism, motivator of students and fellow scientists, and as an original thinker himself. Vindication can sometimes be long in coming. In 2014, Caltech scientists re-validated Kelvin’s theory about convection in earth’s mantle, reversing decades of belief that mantle plumes cause volcanoes (9/11/14).

One myth about Thomson deserves to be corrected. A statement is often attributed to him from 1900: “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” Such a statement at the dawn of Planck’s quantum theory and Einstein’s relativity would, without question, be very embarrassing, but Wikipedia disputes the historicity of the statement, saying that the quote is usually repeated without reference. Indeed, “another author reports in a footnote that his search to document the quote failed to find any direct evidence supporting it.” Additionally, “Very similar statements have been attributed to other physicists contemporary to Kelvin,” the article says. Kelvin shouldn’t be blamed for what someone else may have said. If the quote is undocumented, it should, at the least, be dismissed as spurious. Kelvin lived to hear about Planck’s discovery, and was alive when Einstein published his special theory of relativity.

William Thomson, Lord Kelvin (1829 - 1907)A Champion of Scientific Rigor

A visual thinker, Thomson strongly influenced his students to build models for testing theories. He desired clear understanding of how things worked. This became evident in his inventions, like the mariner’s compass and his tide machine. You don’t have to speculate about a principle if you can see it work.

I can never satisfy myself until I can make a mechanical model of a thing. If I can make a mechanical model, I can understand it. As long as I cannot make a mechanical model all the way through I cannot understand.

He was also a strong mathematician, and taught his students to seek precision in measurement.

I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.

If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it, he stressed. “To measure is to know.” It’s not science if it cannot be measured. The following two quotes should be told to the Darwinians, whose imprecise speculations Kelvin would chastise:

Can you measure it? Can you express it in figures? Can you make a model of it? If not, your theory is apt to be based more upon imagination than upon knowledge…..

Accurate and minute measurement seems to the non-scientific imagination, a less lofty and dignified work than looking for something new. But nearly all the grandest discoveries of science have been but the rewards of accurate measurement and patient long-continued labour in the minute sifting of numerical results.

Stalwart Christian

As a Christian, Lord Kelvin was a gentle, wise and generous family man, faithful in his church, an ardent student of the Scripture and a promoter of Christian education. He believed church members should study the maps in the back of the Bible and understand history. He often expressed awe at the beauty, design and orderliness of creation and natural law, and had no patience with the rising tide of atheism. “The more thoroughly I conduct scientific research, the more I believe that science excludes atheism,” he said. Like so many scientists in this series, he had no problem with faith and science; in fact, he said, “If you study science deep enough and long enough, it will force you to believe in God.” Lord Kelvin used the term intelligent design long before it became a movement:

Overwhelmingly strong proofs of intelligent and benevolent design lie around us… the atheistic idea is so nonsensical that I cannot put it into words.

And yet his Christianity was solidly Biblical. Not content to leave the universe the product of an unspecified designer, he preached the gospel. He said,

Christianity without the cross is nothing. The cross was the fitting close of a life of rejection, scorn and defeat. But in no true sense have these things ceased or changed. Jesus is still He whom man despiseth, and the rejected of men. The world has never admired Jesus, for moral courage is yet needed in every one of its high places by him who would “confess” Christ. The “offense” of the cross, therefore, has led men in all ages to endeavor to be rid of it, and to deny that it is the power of God in the world.

Graphic by J. Beverly  Greene specific for this biography. All rights reserved.

Lord Kelvin was a stalwart knight God raised up to fight the dragon of Darwinism and materialism at a critical time. In that crucial decade of the 1880s, Maxwell and Faraday were gone, but Kelvin was in his prime. He recognized the rise of Darwinism both for its weak science and its evil influence. Accordingly, he got personally into the battle. Many other prominent scientists of the period, like Richard Owen, Rudolph Virchow, St. George Mivart and Whitwell Elwin, protested against Darwin’s claims with biological and philosophical rebuttals. But it was Kelvin who launched a scientific attack with hard-science physics that sent Darwin and his supporters reeling. To his dying day, Darwin considered it the most serious and unsettling criticism of his theory, because it pulled the rug out from under his long-age requirements, and it appeared to have strong scientific support.

Darwin’s Nightmare: An Odious Spectre Appears

Thomson applied his expertise in physics and thermodynamics to argue that the earth could not be as old as Darwin required for evolution. Darwin needed many millions of years to produce a man from a “warm little pond” of chemicals. Darwin historian Janet Browne recounts the seriousness of Thomson’s challenge in her biography, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. She describes how combating anti-Biblical claims (and bad science) was not a new avocation for the physics professor:

While working on this fifth edition [of The Origin of Species], Darwin also encountered major intellectual problems over the age of the earth. William Thomson (the future Lord Kelvin) had asserted on the basis of experimental physics that the earth was not sufficiently old to have allowed evolution to have taken place. To some extent, Thomson was tilting at Lyell—he had never liked Lyell’s endless geological epochs stretching back into eternity. Earlier on, he had attacked Lyell’s gradualism and uniformitarianism, saying that geologists ignored the laws of physics at their peril and that the earth was much younger than usually thought….

In 1866, thoroughly frustrated by what he regarded as pig-headed obtuseness from the Lyellian-Darwinian fraternity, and propelled by anti-evolutionary, Scottish Presbyterian inclinations, Thomson launched a vigorous polemic against the lot of them, stating that 100 million years was all that physics could allow for the earth’s entire history. As Darwin noted, Thomson intimated that the earth had a beginning and would come to a sunless end. —Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Princeton, 2002), p. 314; emphasis added.

(It’s interesting to note the parallels with 20th-century cosmology, with evolutionary astronomers facing the “philosophically repugnant” conclusion that the universe had a beginning– see Robert Jastrow’s book God and the Astronomers for details, summarized in a film interview with Robert Jastrow by Illustra Media that you can watch free at The John 10:10 Project. )

This excerpt from Browne’s excellent biography of Darwin is just one of many that shows that the Darwin Revolution was primarily a social, not a scientific event. It was promoted by a fraternity, a socio-political party of liberals who had an agenda to undercut the historicity of the Bible and usurp science with their pet philosophy of naturalism. It also reveals that Thomson, though a Bible-believing Christian, was morally indignant not only over their denial of the Bible, but over their refusal to accept the clear laws of physics when they contradicted their beliefs. It was not that Thomson himself believed the earth was as old as 100 million years. But he was convinced that physics itself set an upper limit on the age of the earth that falsified Lyell’s and Darwin’s claims. Not intimidated by the Darwin fraternity, he stood up to them, rebuking their “reckless drafts on the bank of time” (see “Lord Kelvin’s Core Values Defended,”  2 July 2007).

Browne next describes the hubbub this caused in the Darwin fraternity. Lyell tried to answer Thomson’s challenge in the tenth edition of his Principles of Geology. Huxley, in what Browne calls one of his “froth and fury” speeches, tried to claim that it didn’t matter, because all Darwin would have to do was speed up the rate of variation. “That,” she claims, “was just what Darwin could not do”—

In the first edition of the Origin of Species he had calculated that the erosion of the Sussex Weald must have taken some 300 million years, a breathtaking length of time that, taken with the rest of the stratigraphic table, provided ample opportunity for gradual organic change. But Darwin’s calculations were wrong. The actual time was much shorter. “Those confounded millions of years,” he had complained to Lyell and deleted the entire example.

So no wonder that “Thomson’s views of the recent age of the world have been for some time one of my sorest troubles.” The 100 million years that Thomson allowed was not nearly long enough for the exceeding slow rates of change Darwin envisaged in nature. The fifth edition of the Origin bore witness to his discomfort. Rattled, he tried various ways to speed up evolution. He was aware that he was becoming more environmentalist, more Lamarckian, as it were, and producing a poor-spirited compromise. He roped in George [his son], with his Cambridge mathematics, to make alternative calculations, telling him that the age of the earth was the single most intractable point levelled against his theory during his lifetime. Five years later Darwin was still protesting that Thomson’s shortened time-span was “an odious spectre.”   (Ibid., pp. 314-315, emphasis added).

Respected geologists, like Archibald Geike, James Croll and Clarence King, confirmed Thomson’s calculations. The evolutionists were up a creek without a scientific paddle, and were running scared down the rapids. Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-claimant to the notion of natural selection, proposed a solution based on climate changes and tilting ecliptics that Darwin grasped at in hope, but it was “regarded as unworkable by physicists and naturalists alike” (Browne, ibid.). Darwin’s son tried to get more time out of the estimates, and “Although George’s relationship with Thomson was close, he warned scholars not to accept all of Thomson’s results” (ibid.). It is clear the younger George Darwin was biding for time, not having any empirical or mathematical support, but probably just trying to protect his famous father from embarrassment and the downfall of his theory.

Thomson kept up the attack. To make matters worse for the Darwinians, he calculated a maximum age for the sun, based on calculations of energy due to gravitational potential energy, resulting in a sun far too young for their requirements. He demonstrated irrefutably that the laws of thermodynamics dictated that the universe and the sun and the earth had a beginning, requiring a Creator, and would come to an utter end – a heat death – barring a supernatural intervention. The Darwinians could not assume an infinitely old universe.

Darwin felt so squeezed by Thomson’s evidence, he was willing to consider radical proposals to keep his theory of natural selection alive. Though cautious about claims of spontaneous generation, he grasped at a suggestion by Henry Bastian in 1872 that there was no real difference between organic and inorganic substances. “Bastian intimated that Lamarck’s notion of a constantly replenished source of primitive organisms might be accurate. Not convinced by the evidence, Darwin nevertheless grasped at the possibility as a way out of Thomson’s trap:

Wallace suggested that these rapid transformations of simple matter could quicken evolution to the point where Thomson’s warnings about the shortened age of the earth could safely be ignored. Darwin saw the value in this. He would like to see spontaneous generation proved true, he told Wallace, “for it would be a discovery of transcendent importance.”  For the rest of his life he watched and pondered.  (Browne, pp. 393-394.)

Darwin died in 1882, never finding a way out of this vexing corner Thomson had put him in (Lord Kelvin would live another 25 years). Browne wraps up this episode, saying, “Decades of continuing debate over the age of the earth were resolved only with the discovery of radioactivity early in the twentieth century, that, broadly speaking, allowed the earth to be as old as evolutionists needed it to be” (Ibid., p. 315, emphasis added). In addition, the age of the sun became extendable to billions of years when thermonuclear reactions were discovered. Darwinians breathed a collected sigh of relief. Some even felt this was the last stand for creationism, and they must now declare defeat (see views of Stephen Weinberg, 11/26/2003). They should understand that claims of its early demise are a bit premature.

The first successful Transatlantic Cable depended on repeaters invented by Lord Kelvin. He traveled on a ship like this.

The Bank of Time Is Still Overdrawn

Thomson’s argument for a maximum age for the earth and sun were made before the discovery of radioactivity and thermonuclear reactions, true, but have been discounted unfairly on that basis (see 7/02/07). In actuality, the age of the earth and sun are difficulties for evolution even today. Additionally, modern creationists have continued to exhibit additional prima facie scientific evidences for a young earth and solar system: phenomena like the lifetimes of comets and planetary rings, the amount of salt in the oceans, the amount of helium remaining in deep earth sediments, and the presence of carbon-14 in presumably million-year old fossils when it should be long gone. Evolutionists were so desperate to find a way to stretch out the age of the earth, they leaped on radioactivity as if it were a panacea. Thus inoculated against Kelvin’s “odious spectre,” they have since presumed that the earth can be “as old as evolutionists needed it to be.” It’s time to turn up the heat again.

Radioactivity and thermonuclear reactions have complicated the argument Lord Kelvin used, but have not destroyed it. Early geologists were not physicists, but now there are geophysicists who use their expertise to argue that the earth is billions of years old. Much of their argumentation, however, assumes that Darwinism is true; it does not constitute independent evidence. The bar was raised for creationists. It takes more learning to confute their abstruse math and convoluted arguments. Yet much of Darwinist belief is predicated on preserving the long ages Darwin’s theory requires. Once that is understood, it is remarkable how clear the evidence for a young solar system appears to one not already brainwashed to think in terms of long ages. Modern creationists should continue Kelvin’s challenge, not being intimidated by the “pig-headed obtuseness from the Lyellian-Darwinian fraternity.” It is still necessary to insist that “geologists ignore the laws of physics at their peril.” The Creation Research Society Quarterly regularly features physical evidence for a young earth, a recent creation, and a world-wide Flood, as do similar peer-reviewed technical journals from Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International.

Two general points bear repeating on this matter: (1) Empirical evidence: Creationists have assembled over 20 evidences for a young earth, including the decay of earth’s magnetic field, the rapid erosion of comets, the amount of salt in the oceans, soft tissue in dinosaur bones, and more—all independent evidences that converge on youth. One interesting evidence involves radioactivity itself: carbon 14 (half-life 5730 years) has been found in diamonds, coal, and in other objects said to be millions of years old, when it should have vanished in less than 100,000 years. This rules out Darwin’s required millions of years. (2) Philosophical evidence: no amount of time would be sufficient for life to evolve by Darwin’s blind, unguided process. The high degree of order we see in the simplest life could never emerge by chance on any planet in the universe, even if one accepts the 13.7 billion year age astronomers believe. It was decades after Kelvin died that astronomers came to accept that the universe had a beginning, and Kelvin proved that thermodynamics guarantees its heat death. Time is limited, therefore, and Kelvin’s arguments still stand: you cannot make “reckless drafts on the bank of time” to expect chance to work the miracles Darwin’s theory requires. The maximum time between big bang and heat death is still insufficient. In fact, the heat would come sooner than first believed, unless God intervenes, because in the 1990s astronomers found that the universe is accelerating, and will rip itself apart. Since billions of years won’t help the Darwinians, why even accept them, in light of the many evidences for youth in point (1)? Logically speaking, it is more valid to propose upper limits than lower limits, since it requires less extrapolation from observable evidence. Lord Kelvin, therefore, used a powerful mode of argument against the Darwinians.

Lord Kelvin was distinguished professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at the University of Glasgow for 50 years. Traced from an early photograph by J. Beverly Greene.

Model for Successful Tactics

There are other lessons from Kelvin’s battle over the age of the earth. Though a Christian, Kelvin understood the power of scientific arguments. He knew the Darwinian scoffers would ridicule Biblical reasoning, but they had to respect science, because they were claiming to be the voice of science in their culture. You want science? he seemed to be saying; Here, have some. Lord Kelvin’s scientific credentials towered over those of his critics. That should be a challenge to those wishing to do battle with evolutionary philosophy. It’s important to know your field. Darwin, Lyell, Wallace and the other frat members simply could not ignore a respected physicist or his arguments.

Another lesson is that Kelvin fought like a gentleman.  Even his adversaries respected the fact that he never became personally vindictive. Even “Darwin’s bulldog,” Thomas Huxley, praised Kelvin as a gentleman, a scholar, and a formidable opponent: he called him “the most perfect knight who ever broke a lance.” But a gentleman can be a warrior, too. Known for his self-confidence, Kelvin held the Darwinists’ feet to the fire of scientific rigor and didn’t let them get by with mere storytelling. His students respected him for his skill at demonstrating underlying, unifying principles (rather than requiring memorization of facts), and motivating them to do their best.

Physics students know of the Kelvin temperature scale, but should know about this man’s measure on the scale of greatness (see Postscript). William Thomson, Lord Kelvin published over 600 research papers and served as president of the Royal Society. Showered with 21 honorary doctorates from around the world (perhaps these could be referred to as “Degrees Kelvin”), he had right to more letters after his name than any of his contemporaries. He received numerous other awards and was knighted by the queen. Not only did Lord Kelvin advance science in fundamental ways himself, he mentored Joule, Maxwell, Tait and other eminent scientists. He was buried in Westminster Abbey after a long and successful career.

Solid Foundation for Hope

It was Biblical faith that gave Lord Kelvin confidence in a glorious future despite what the cold laws of thermodynamics dictated. Referring to both Scripture and science, he said,

We have the sober scientific certainty that the heavens and earth shall ‘wax old as doth a garment’1 … Dark indeed would be the prospects for the human race if unilluminated by that light which reveals ‘new heavens and a new earth.’2

1Psalm 102:26
2Revelation 21

Postscript: A website about the History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications, “one of the greatest technological achievements of the 19th century, often equated with the 20th century’s first moon landing,” is surprised that Lord Kelvin, one of its key pioneers, is not better known. They list the honors bestowed on him in his lifetime:

Antique Italian “Kelvin 3-Scale Thermometer” with Fahrenheit, Celsius and Réaumur scales, traced from a photo by JBG.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Sir William Thomson, known as Lord Kelvin (of Largs), was widely acknowledged as one of the greatest scientists in history. (Crocker, 1902; Lord Kelvin, 1902) More recently, polls of over 500 physicists from around the world failed to even nominate him for consideration as one of the great physicists of all time. (Physics World, 1999; Physics Web News, 1999; Top 10, 1999) Is it confusion over his name? Is he one person or three: ‘William Thomson’ or the misspelled ‘William Thompson’ or is he ‘Lord Kelvin’?  Or are his many contributions to classical physics and electrical communications so easily overlooked? More likely, Lord Kelvin defies a ready definition. Is he a mathematician, a physicist or an engineer? He contributed to theoretical classical physics while simultaneously applying empirical mathematical analysis to the new fields of engineering and electrical science. Many physicists consider him an engineer. Engineers consider him too theoretical. Mathematicians overlook his applications. In today’s technical world, his contributions across many areas of study, now highly specialized, have left him ill defined; however, no one else has accomplished so much in so many disciplines. (Crocker, 1902)

William Thomson is credited with many of the important theoretical and mathematical concepts that underlie the 19th century’s great progress in classical physics. He established key concepts leading to the Law of Conservation of Energy, the first and second laws of Thermodynamics, and introduced the words “potential” and “kinetic” energy into the physics lexicon. He established the absolute temperature scale (now known as degrees ‘Kelvin’) and was instrumental in promoting the international adoption of standard electrical measures and the French metric system. He was also a public figure, renowned as an important telegraph engineer and inventor, and the scientist responsible for the success of the Atlantic Cable. Thomson used innovative mathematical approaches and analogies drawn from physics to solve many of the crucial engineering problems facing the Atlantic cable project. He was the first person to explain the electrical theory behind the operation of land based telegraph lines allowing him to conceive a new system for successful undersea telegraphy. During his lifetime, he wrote 661 scientific papers and was awarded 75 patents in the United Kingdom, the United States and Switzerland. (Trainer, 2004) He was knighted in 1866, and in 1892 he was the first scientist in British history to be named a Lord. He was also the first scientist to be raised to the Privy Council in 1902. Among his many honors, William Thomson was Fellow and President of the Royal Society, Fellow and President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, recipient of the Copley Medal (the 19th century equivalent of the Nobel Prize). He was laid to rest as Lord Kelvin in December, 1907 next to Sir Isaac Newton in London’s Westminster Abbey. He was buried with all the pomp and honor that the British Empire could bestow on one of its most famous sons.