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Baron William Thomson Kelvin
(26 Jun 1824 - 17 Dec 1907)

Irish physicist, mathematician and engineer , born as William Thomson in Ireland, he became an influential physicist, mathematician and engineer who has been described as the Newton of his era.


William Thomson Kelvin
“The rewards of accurate measurement”

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“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.”
— William Thomson Kelvin
From lecture at Institution of Civil Engineers (1883).

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On 2 Aug 1871, as President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Lord Kelvin addressed the society General Meeting in Edinburgh, Scotland. The Association was then forty years old, and Kelvin began with a historical retrospective of its founding, and the scientists involved with the organisation. He eulogized Sir John Herschel who had died earlier that year and reviewed his accomplishments. Then he summarized the progress of science around the country, during which he remarked:

“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.”

To illustrate his point, he continued:

“The popular idea of Newton’s grandest discovery is that the theory of gravitation flashed into his mind, and so the discovery was made. It was by a long train of mathematical calculation, founded on results accumulated through prodigious toil of practical astronomers, that Newton first demonstrated the forces urging the planets towards the Sun, determined the magnitudes of those forces, and discovered that a force following the same law of variation with distance urges the Moon towards the Earth. Then first, we may suppose, came to him the idea of the universality of gravitation; but when he attempted to compare the magnitude of the force on the Moon with the magnitude of the force of gravitation of a heavy body of equal mass at the earth’s surface, he did not find the agreement which the law he was discovering required. Not for years after would he publish his discovery as made. It is recounted that, being present at a meeting of the Royal Society, he heard a paper read, describing geodesic measurement by Picard which led to a serious correction of the previously accepted estimate of the Earth’s radius. This was what Newton required. He went home with the result, and commenced his calculations, but felt so much agitated that he handed over the arithmetical work to a friend: then (and not when, sitting in a garden, he saw an apple fall) did he ascertain that gravitation keeps the Moon in her orbit.”

Kelvin noted the meticulous work of other scientists, including:

“Faraday’s discovery of specific inductive capacity, which inaugurated the new philosophy, tending to discard action at a distance, was the result of minute and accurate measurement of electric forces.

Joule’s discovery of thermo-dynamic law through the regions of electro-chemistry, electro-magnetism, and elasticity of gases was based on a delicacy of thermometry which seemed simply impossible to some of the most distinguished chemists of tho day.

Andrews’ discovery of tho continuity between the gaseous and liquid states was worked out by many years of laborious and minute measurement of phenomena scarcely sensible to the naked eye.”

Text by Webmaster, with quotes from Kelvin’s Presidential inaugural address, to the General Meeting of the British Association, Edinburgh (2 Aug 1871). In Report of the Forty-First Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1872), xci. (source)


See also:

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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