Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking

By William H. Cropper | Go to book overview
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7
The Scientist as Virtuoso
William Thomson

A Problem Solver

William Thomson was many things—physicist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, teacher, political activist, and famous personality—but before all else he was a problem solver. He thrived on scientific and technological problems of all kinds. Whatever the problem, abstract or applied, Thomson usually had an original insight and a valuable solution. As a scientist and technologist, he was a virtuoso.

Even Helmholtz, another famous problem solver, was amazed by Thomson's virtuosic performances. After meeting Thomson for the first time, Helmholtz wrote to his wife, “He far exceeds all the great men of science with whom I have made personal acquaintance, in intelligence and lucidity, and mobility of thought, so that I felt quite wooden beside him sometimes.” Helmholtz later wrote to his father, “He is certainly one of the first mathematical physicists of his day, with powers of rapid invention such as I have seen in no other man.”

Thomson and Helmholtz became good friends, and in later years Thomson made their discussions on subjects of mutual interest into an extended competition, which we can assume Thomson usually won. On one occasion, when Helmholtz was visiting on board Thomson's sailing yacht in Scotland, the subject for marathon discussion was the theory of waves, which, as Helmholtz wrote (again in a letter to his wife), “he loved to treat as a kind of race between us.” When Thomson had to go ashore for a few hours, he told his guest, “Now mind, Helmholtz, you're not to work at waves while I'm away.”

Much of Thomson's problem-solving talent was based on his extraordinary mathematical aptitude. He must have been a mathematical prodigy. While in his teens, he matriculated at the University of Glasgow (where his father was a professor of mathematics) and won prizes in natural philosophy and astronomy. When he was sixteen he read Joseph Fourier's Analytical Theory of Heat, and correctly defended Fourier's mathematical methods against the criticism of Philip Kelland, professor of mathematics at the University of Edinburgh. This work was

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