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  • Print publication year: 2002
  • Online publication date: June 2014

8 - Stokes and Kelvin, Cambridge and Glasgow, light and heat


Victorian physics was largely Cambridge physics, and Cambridge physics was largely the creation of Sir George Gabriel Stokes (1819–1903) and William Thomson, Baron Kelvin of Largs (1824–1907). The Kelvin temperature scale, Stokes' parameters for polarised light, Stokes' law for a sphere moving through a viscous fluid: the language of today's physics quietly echoes yesterday's greatness. This chapter tries to recapture some of that greatness by placing the intertwined careers of Stokes and Kelvin within the broader story of Victorian physics and Victorian Cambridge University. Their collaboration and influence is symbolised by the fact that what is known as Stokes' theorem was suggested in a letter from Kelvin to Stokes and then set by Stokes as a question in a Cambridge examination taken by James Clerk Maxwell, generally acknowledged as the premier physicist of the century.

The careers of the two had close similarities. Both succeeded in Cambridge's Mathematical Tripos in the 1840s and obtained professorships that they would hold for more than five decades. Early research gained both election as fellows of the Royal Society of London in 1851. Thomson received a knighthood in 1867, Stokes was created a baronet in 1889, and Thomson was raised to the peerage in 1892, becoming Lord Kelvin. As elder statesmen of Victorian science, they occupied the presidency of the Royal Society for a decade, Stokes from 1885 to 1890 and Thomson from 1890 to 1895.