scientific achievements (he took the name Kelvin from the river that flows past Glasgow University, where he worked). Today – rightly or wrongly – Lord Kelvin is best remembered as the archetype of the arrogantly self-confident scientist who refuses to believe anything that isn’t already enshrined in a textbook.
This reputation is only partly deserved. It’s true that Kelvin was overly skeptical about technological advancement – for example in 1902, the year before the Wright Brothers’ first flight, he confidently predicted that heavier-than-air flight would never be practical. However, his most famous pronouncement was actually cleverer and more perceptive than it appears at first sight. In 1900 (at the age of 76) he gave a speech suggesting that scientific theory was virtually complete except for what he described as “two little clouds in the sky”. With hindsight, given the huge revolutions in quantum theory and relativity that would turn physics on its head over the next few decades, Kelvin’s assertion looks ludicrously pompous. Yet the two clouds he was talking about – the Michelson-Morley experiment and the ultraviolet catastrophe (or lack thereof) – were pretty much the only phenomena known at the time which couldn’t be explained without relativity or quantum theory. So Kelvin’s only mistake was to assume that these “two little clouds” would turn out to have simple explanations, rather than domino-toppling, paradigm-shifting ones.
Personally I don’t believe Lord Kelvin was the blinkered and close-minded skeptic that history makes him out to be. If you’re really looking for the patron saint of skeptics, you need to go back to the 18th century and another Scotsman – David Hume. I wrote about him in some detail five years ago (David Hume: a skeptic in the 18th century) so you can just click on that link if you want the details. To put it in a nutshell (and again this is just a personal opinion), Hume was a nasty piece of work who pioneered the aggressively hardnosed “If I haven’t seen it with my own eyes, it doesn’t exist” brand of skepticism.
Anyway, I spotted a statue of Hume a couple of days later in the centre of Edinburgh. Amusingly, it shows him dressed like an arty-farty ancient Greek philosopher – somehow I doubt that it’s a depiction Hume himself would have appreciated!