Degrees of Kelvin

18th February 2005 at 00:00
Deedee Cuddihy learns more about how the work of Glasgow's greatest scientist has transformed our lives

Lord Kelvin - Revolutionary Scientist Hunterian Museum, Glasgow University tel 0141 330

The glossy permanent exhibition on Lord Kelvin, a giant of physics and engineering in the Victorian era, that has opened at Glasgow University's Hunterian Museum has been praised as "better than the Science Centre" and "as good as a packet of chocolate biscuits" by two of its visitors.

Aimed at a non-specialist audience and designed particularly with young people in mind, Lord Kelvin - Revolutionary Scientist explores the work of the genius, who was born in Belfast but moved to Glasgow when he was a youngster, taught at the university for more than 50 years and has come to be regarded as one of the most prolific and respected scientists of all time.

The story of Kelvin is told using a combination of historic scientific instruments, computer generated images and simple but effective interactive displays, separated into three distinct areas and spread out over half of the Hunterian Museum's gallery.

Visitors made nervous by the sight of polyphonic sirens, harmonic analysers or quadrant electrometers should start their exploration of the show in the middle display section. Here, almost everything you could want to know about the man whose professional interests ranged from domestic plumbing (he invented the non-drip tap) to the structure of the atom, is contained within eight big-screen electronic information pillars.

Topics covered include safety at sea, communications - he was involved in the Atlantic telegraph cable project - and heat and energy, each with its own animated computer program activated by big plastic buttons and enlivened by appropriate graphics and sounds effects.

Under "Heat and Energy", sub-section "Hot and Cold", for instance, the screen fills with the words: "Have you ever been in a big crowd? People tend to bump into one another and dodge around. The same is true for the tiny particles that make up all the objects around us. They move around, usually in disarray, jostling one another. This gives objects their temperature." The illustration shows blue bubbles moving around; the sound is water boiling.

Many visitors head straight for the interactive area where 16 stations have been set up to give people the chance to experience, for themselves, the sort of scientific work that Kelvin was engaged in during his career. The interactive displays include Laser Speckle, Cartesian Diver, Couple Pendulum ("How one object can feed its energy into the other and vice versa") and Amazing Wobbling Wine Glass. Surprisingly, given the hammering most interactive displays are subjected to, only the Joule-Kelvin Plasma Loudspeaker was not working.

After this relatively gentle introduction to Kelvin's world, even visitors who are scared of science should feel well able to tackle the impressive display of historic scientific instruments. Kelvin worked on the principle that "I am never content until I have constructed a mechanical model of what I am studying. If I succeed in making one, I understand; otherwise, I do not."

Many of the models on show were constructed by him or made to his design and were used to liven up his lectures. During one demonstration in 1861, the visiting German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz had his top hat violently knocked off his head when Kelvin's favourite gyroscope accidentally flew off the table.

A miniature cannon was used to show students how a spark of electricity could ignite the gunpowder in its barrel. And Kelvin's French horn (he was an enthusiastic musician) came in handy when he was explaining acoustics.

Other historic objects include some of the patented designs, such as compasses and electricity meters, which helped to make him a wealthy man and were produced in the Glasgow factory he co-founded.

At the far end of the gallery, a mini lecture theatre has been created with tiered seating facing a huge screen (wittily framed like a Victorian painting) where visitors can watch videos of one of Glasgow University's 21st century physicists, Dr Ken Skeldon, giving demonstrations to audiences of school pupils.

In addition, a row of computers allows access to an excellent, easy-to-use programme (suitable for P6 upwards) on Kelvin, designed especially for the show. It charts his life and work from the days when he was plain William Thomson, to his knighthood in 1866 for work on the Atlantic cable project, his elevation to the House of Lords as Baron Kelvin of Largs in 1892 and, finally, to his death in 1907, aged 83, and burial in Westminster Abbey beside Sir Isaac Newton.

We learn that Kelvin's concept of energy, which linked his own absolute temperature scale with the work of colleague James Joule, "changed our world forever" because it gave scientists a method of calculating and even predicting how much heat is used and lost in any process.

Kelvin's motivation was said to be "the result of great curiosity in the world around him". This kept his mind busy. He always carried a notebook for logging his ideas and the time of day he thought of them.

The formal education programme will be launched early next year.

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