William Thomson, Lord Kelvin (1829 - 1907)

William Thomson, Lord Kelvin


by David F. Coppedge

William Thomson, Scottish physicist, mathematician and engineer, later 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 also ruled out an infinitely-old universe.

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; Kelvin had his own hand X-rayed in 1896. 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, 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 Einstein’s relativity and Planck’s quantum theory 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.

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.

But he also recognized the rise of Darwinism both for its weak science and 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 scientific and philosophical rebuttals. But it was Kelvin who launched a scientific attack 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.

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. Janet Browne explains the seriousness of Thomson’s challenge, and 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.
(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.)

This excerpt from Browne’s excellent biography of Darwin is just one of many that shows evolutionary doctrine came primarily out of 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 7/02/07).

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 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.

BM-screamclickDarwin 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. 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 need to understand that claims of its early demise are a bit premature.

Thomson’s argument for a maximum age for the earth and sun were made before the discovery of radioactivity and thermonuclear reactions, and 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 standing for “pig-headed obtuseness from the Lyellian-Darwinian fraternity.” It is still necessary to insist that “geologists ignore the laws of physics at their peril.”

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 respected science, too, and he was well qualified as a scientist. 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. 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.

It was Biblical faith that gave Lord Kelvin confidence in a glorious future despite what the cold laws of physics 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