Some European scientists have recently made the startling assertion that our stock of oxygen has been materially lessened within the last fifty years. Stripping of forests from thousands of square miles of country and the outpouring into the air of enormous volumes of carbonic gases are, perhaps, the two great causes of its diminution—for both of which civilization is responsible. When our oxygen is gone in considerable quantities and its place is taken by carbonic gases, what will become of mankind?
Man is very adaptable; his present form is only the result of this adaptation to changing conditions.
One may try to reconstruct man under such circumstances. It is probable that he would first sinks on all fours to breathe the oxygen still remaining near the earth's surface. His skin subjected to constant heat—for there would be little moisture in the air—would grow thick and bark-like. The pores of the skin, acted upon more and more to help in the breathing process, would enlarge enormously into octopus-like suckers. The ears would, perhaps, form a hood-like covering to the head; the nose become more and more like a tendril or the suckers which certain vigorous plants send forth. As man became more and more a crawling thing his legs would become useless and would probably form themselves into a long root-like appendage. Finally to protect himself, he would grow spines—just as the cactus did—and these would be the last form of hair that once covered his body.
Here Artist Kerr shows what his idea of plant-man would look like in that distant time. For if such changes ever did come about, it is not likely that they could occur for another million years at least.
It now appears that the situation is more convoluted, and that I'm redoing the work of someone who also stumbled upon the quote -- 108 years ago!
In a letter published in Nature (July 3, 1902), Hiram Stevens Maxim -- the inventor of the automatic machine gun, the mousetrap, amusement-park airplane rides, and possibly the lightbulb -- asked the editors about the source of Kelvin's wing-beat-changes-the-Universe quote -- only in the version Maxim read (from William Stanley) it was a mosquito wing doing the Universe-beating:
Mr. William Stanley, an American philosopher and engineer, said a few days ago that the grandest words ever uttered by any man on this planet were spoken by Lord Kelvin when he said that if all the matter in the Universe were reduced to its ultimate atoms and equally divided through all space, the disturbance caused by the beating of the wing of one mosquito would bring about everything that we find in the material Universe to-day. I have written to Lord Kelvin asking him where I can find some account of this, but he denies that he ever said anything of the kind. However, as Mr. Stanley declares that it appeared in Nature, perhaps you can put me in the way of getting a copy of the paper which contains this remarkable utterance, which, by the way, is quite true, and if Lord Kelvin did not say it, I only have to say that he might well have been the author.
Hiram S. Maxim,
18 Queen's Gate Place, London, S.W., June 25.
A Google book search turned up nothing in Nature from Kelvin on this subject, but searching for a quote based on a paraphrase that may include the wrong order of insect isn't exactly a science, so I could be missing it. (Also, if I may gripe, Google treats issues of many older periodicals as if they are different editions of the same book, showing only the newest issue that matches the query, making searches aggravating.)
While this almost certainly excludes Kelvin from being the source of the Butterfly Effect's specific protagonist, and possibly his general insectile contributions to the field of chaos theory if his memory was correct, it still calls into question Ray Bradbury as the ultimate source of the lepidopteran imagery.
But more interestingly, the butterfly seems to have originated out of a paraphrased-quote-based game of telephone -- where the flap of a tongue can turn "tornado" into "Texas" -- making it an example of its own effect.
P.S. If you came here looking for the band called the Mosquito Effect, you are in the wrong place.
A team of physicists from the universities of Bristol, Glasgow, and Southampton have succeeded in tying light into knots using holograms, a discovery that will lead to greater control over the flow of light, allowing advances in lasers and other optical technologies.
They were able to do this by designing the holograms using Knot Theory, a hitherto purely abstract mathematical field that was founded by Lord Kelvin in his quest to enlighten Humanity as to the knotted aetheric vortices that comprise material reality.
As Dr. Mark Dennis, the lead author of the research team, notes "This work opens a new chapter in that history" (of Knot Theory).
Once ridiculed for their strange fascination with tabulating different types of knots and their eccentric shoelace patterns, and only occasionally finding themselves in the news with the discovery of new aesthetic tie knots, Knot Theorists can now claim control over light itself, making their tangly passion key to Humanity's photonic future. What opportunities this creates -- the power, the prestige, the grants, being invited to all the trendy parties once only open to Chaos Theorists and Fractal Geometrists. Never again will a Knot Theorist be ashamed to walk the Halls of Science with the dawning of this, the Decade of the Knot!
Speaking of J.J. Abrams and trivial entertainment news with minor connections to subjects on my site... Perhaps in acknowledgement of his service in the War of the Worlds, Lord Kelvin has been honored with a starship in his name in Abrams' upcoming Star Trek reboot.
The USS Kelvin (designation NCC-0514) was, according to one fan site's calculation, constructed in the 2220s -- predating both the USS Enterprise and James T. Kirk. George Kirk, James' father, apparently served as first officer on the Kelvin before it was destroyed by Romulans:
While the plot of the movie is closely guarded, might we suspect Kirk's father died in that explosion? Could this be the event that prompted Kirk to give up his misspent youth of driving Corvettes off of cliffs to follow in his father's footsteps by joining Star Fleet, thus setting him on the path to become the greatest Starship Captain in the history of the Federation, if not the Alpha-Quadrant, and save countless lives from a quadro-triticale famine on Sherman's Planet by averting the Tribble Menace? Sure, why not.
Obviously this ship is even more important than the Enterprise to the history of Star Trek. How fitting that it should named in Lord Kelvin's honor.
In 1887, Lord Kelvin, in a paper titled "On the Division of Space with Minimum Partitional Area", sought a way of partitioning space using a foam of equal-sized cells with a minimum surface area. His solution, known as the Kelvin structure, consisted of repeating tetrakaidecahedra with slightly curved faces.
It wasn't until 106 years later that Denis Weaire and Robert Phelan discovered (aided by advanced computer software that would have taken millions of years of run time on a standard Victorian era difference engine,) a solution that had 0.3 percent less surface area than the Kelvin structure. However, their solution, the Weaire-Phelan structure, uses two different shaped cells instead of Kelvin's simpler single cell solution.
As the New York Times reports, the wall and roof structure of the new Beijing National Aquatics Center, also known as the Water Cube, is based on the Weaire-Phelan solution to the Kelvin Problem. The building's designer, Tristram Carfrae, tilted the structure 60° to give the surface an almost random look (although it does repeat its pattern). According to this 2004 article, it was for this pseudo-irregular "organic quality" that the Weaire-Phelan structure was chosen over the Kelvin structure, which was originally considered.
In his 1899 speech given after Sir George Stokes read his paper "On the Perception of Colour" at the Victoria Institute, Lord Kelvin casually predicted the future:
Now I spoke of scientific men. There are scientific ladies also—and ladies who are not scientific—and I am sure they will all thoroughly sympathise with scientific men in their appreciation of this beautiful theory.
Sir George Stokes told us that every variety of colour may be produced by the mixture of red, green and violet, and in Maxwell's practical work on the subject of which he spoke, white and black are added in the mixture, white to dilute the intensity of the colour; and black to diminish the total light emitted by a body exposed to sunlight.
Now in these times when ladies are so well occupied with important work that they scarcely have time for shopping, it would be a great comfort to them, if when they wanted a beautiful blue ribbon, they could simply write down on a piece of paper 18.104.22.168.4. and put it in an envelope and send it to the shop; or 22.214.171.124.0 a brilliant yellow, no black in it—3 of red, 4 of green, 0 of violet, 2 of white to brighten it up a little and dilute some of the colour. Do not imagine that you will get green by mixing yellow and blue—on the contrary, you get yellow by mixing red and green, as was first taught by Young, enforced by Helmholtz, and splendidly put in practice by Maxwell.
That's right, Lord Kelvin foresaw the common use of color codes on the Web! Kelvin's idea went even further though, to real world color specification via numerical strings. Unfortunately, the average consumer still can't purchase pretty ribbons or other such things custom dyed from an RGBLK string sent to the shop. (I smell a Web 2.0 business potential...)
While further researching Lord Kelvin, I came across an interesting quote. The Universe a Vast Electric Organism (George Woodward Warder, 1903) quotes Prof. Garrett P. Serviss -- the author of Edison's Conquest of Mars, which co-stars Lord Kelvin -- in the New York American, May 16, 1903 (bold mine):
"The undulatory theory of energy is carrying everything before it. It is not saying too much to aver that wave motion is concerned in nearly all the phenomena of physical life . . . Think for a moment of what is included in the science of waves. In the air all sounds, all musical harmonies are waves; in the solid globe, all earthquakes are waves; in the ether light, electricity and heat are waves. It is waves that make the stars visible, and yet more mysterious oscillations picture for us on photographic plates marvelous nebulous objects. Lord Kelvin has been credited with the statement that the fluttering of a butterfly's wing sets up vibrations that shake the universe." (p.288)
I've searched for the original quote by Kelvin but have come up empty. The only references to it I can find on the Internet are in Warder and a mention in passing in Science of the New Thought (Erastus Whitford Hopkins, 1904). If anyone can find what statement of Kelvin's Serviss was referring to, please contact me, as this would add chaos theory to the multitude of scientific fields that Kelvin influenced in some way.
According to the Wikipedia article on the "butterfly effect", the connection of butterflies to the idea of sensitive dependence on initial conditions came from Ray Bradbury's 1952 short story "A Sound of Thunder". Granted it's Wikipedia, so it might as well say John Seigenthaler Sr. first came up with the idea, but if that's the accepted wisdom on the metaphor's origin, what shall we make of Kelvin's use of it half a century earlier? Time travel?
[UPDATE 2010-01-28: Looks like it was originally a mosquito, and Kelvin didn't recall saying it.]
Since I don't have Kelvin's original quote, I'll leave you instead with some entertaining figures from Hopkins' book above:
Wired notes that on this day in 1903 Thomas Edison electrocuted an elephant to death as part of his smear campaign against alternating current, a system in competition with his patented direct current system. As the War of Currents raged, Edison grew increasingly alarmed at the acceptance of AC as the electrical distribution standard, and so set out to scare the public into believing it was too dangerous through a series of publicized animal executions using AC. Topsy the elephant was merely a notable exception in a long string of fried dogs and cats. (Edison also promoted the use of an AC electric chair for human executions, even though he was opposed to capital punishment; such was his desire to tarnish the image of a competitor at any cost.)
It should not surprise readers of this site that the decision that led to AC beating out DC came from none other than the Lord Kelvin.
It was Lord Kelvin who headed the 1895 International Niagara Falls Commission that chose Nikola Tesla's alternating current system over other proposals, including the Edison-backed DC system from General Electric, and awarded Westinghouse the contract to construct the hydroelectric generators at Niagara Falls. This highly-visible project showed the practicality of the system and turned the tide in favor of AC.
Kelvin had originally been opposed to alternating current before being swayed at the 1893 Chicago Exposition. His acceptance of Tesla's system actually completed a circuit, since an inspiration for much of Tesla's research was Kelvin's 1853 paper "On Transient Electric Currents". Kelvin, who had long been a promoter of electric lighting -- his house in Glasgow was the first in the world to by fully lit by electricity -- saw in AC the potential to bring about a dream of his, that he reiterated on a visit in 1902 (quoted in The Post-Standard, April 22, 1902, p. 1):
It has been so great, so marvelous, that I hope to live to see the day when a dream I have had may come true. I fervently hope to see the day when we shall have the transmission of electric power over 300 miles with a voltage of 40,000. When I first talked of that fifteen years ago I was laughed at. But with the wonderful transmission of power at Niagara Falls, my dream looks to be near fulfillment in the close future.
And let me tell you American people, there may be a time when the waters will flow no more over that great horseshoe, but instead there will be a beautiful growth of vegetation far more superb than any water flowing in torrents over the precipice, water that will find its way down countless turbines spreading light and power for hundreds of miles in all directions.
Edison's use of violence against animals to undermine Lord Kelvin's choice of AC was viciously ironic given Kelvin's concern for animal welfare. Kelvin, who was a vice-president of the Society for the Protection of Animals Liable to Vivisection, publicly spoke out against animal cruelty. While he did allow that some vivisections might be necessary for the advancement of science in cases where new knowledge might be gained (he later resigned as SPALV vice-president when the Society united with the more hard-line International Association for the Total Suppression of Vivisection,) he firmly held that repeated vivisections merely for the edification of students was "altogether unnecessary" (source).
In a letter to the Scotsman on March 6, 1877 (quoted in S.P. Thompson's The Life of Lord Kelvin), he wrote:
SIR—In your print of this morning I see a report of Professor Rutherford's paper on "The Secretion of Bile," read at the meeting of the Royal Society yesterday evening, when, as president, I was in the chair. As chairman I did not feel that I had the right to express my opinion that experiments involving such torture to so large a number of sentient and intelligent animals are not justifiable by either the object proposed, or the results obtained, or obtainable, by such an investigation as that described by Professor Rutherford. I feel this opinion very strongly, after many years serious consideration of the general question of the advisableness or justifiableness of experiments involving cruel treatment of the lower animals. I trust you will kindly give me this opportunity of expressing it, as my presence without protest yesterday evening might seem to imply that I approved of the experiments which were described.
As to electrocuting animals, this anecdote (recounted in The Elyria Chronicle, Aug. 1, 1906, p. 4) clearly shows that he was against it:
Lord Kelvin once performed a daring experiment before a class of students. In the course of his lecture he said that while a voltage of 3,000 or so would be fatal to a man a voltage of some 300,000 would be harmless. He was going to give a practical illustration on himself, but the students cried out, "Try it on a dog!" Lord Kelvin cast a look of reproach at his class. "Didn't I figure it out myself?" he said quietly, as he walked to the apparatus and safely turned the tremendous voltage into himself.
Kelvin's fondness for his pet parrots, Doctor Redtail and Professor Papagaio, was typical of his concern for animals. S.P. Thompson notes:
Lord Kelvin was very fond of animal pets. His parrots have several times been mentioned. He had a horror of unnecessary slaughter of creatures, particularly of birds. He once seized the arm of a man who, while on board his yacht, was shooting a sea-gull, and he protested indignantly against such wanton cruelty.
In contrast, Edison's proclivity for animal abuse extends even to his arrogant self-promotions, as can be seen in Garrett P. Serviss's Edison's Conquest of Mars, an 1898 sci-fi newspaper serial that was officially authorized by Edison's PR machine. The story, which coincidently casts Lord Kelvin as a supporting player, contains the following scene that would have disturbed Kelvin:
TESTING THE "DISINTEGRATOR"
I had the good fortune to be present when this powerful engine of destruction was submitted to its first test. We had gone upon the roof of Mr. Edison's laboratory and the inventor held the little instrument, with its attached mirror, in his hand. We looked about for some object on which to try its powers. On a bare limb of a tree not far away, for it was late fall, sat a disconsolate crow.
"Good," said Mr. Edison, "that will do." He touched a button at the side of the instrument and a soft, whirring noise was heard. "Feathers," said Mr. Edison, "have a vibration period of three hundred and eighty-six million per second."
He adjusted the index as he spoke. Then, through a sighting tube, he aimed at the bird.
"Now watch," he said.
THE CROW'S FATE
Another soft whirr in the instrument, a momentary flash of light close around it, and, behold, the crow had turned from black to white!
"Its feathers are gone," said the inventor; "they have been dissipated into their constituent atoms. Now, we will finish the crow."
Instantly there was another adjustment of the index, another outshooting of vibratory force, a rapid up and down motion of the index to include a certain range of vibrations, and the crow itself was gone—vanished in empty space! There was the bare twig on which a moment before it had stood. Behind, in the sky, was the white cloud against which its black form had been sharply outlined, but there was no more crow.
Furthermore, The Edison Papers' chronology page has this bizarre entry for April 6, 1877, suggesting the kind of violent work environment Edison fostered: "Laboratory staff's 'pet' bear gets loose and they kill it."
While I can find no record of Lord Kelvin commenting on Edison's public animal executions -- perhaps because Kelvin did not wish to appear biased, as with the incident in the Scotsman letter -- I find it hard to believe that he would have viewed Edison's elephanticidal barbarity, which contributed nothing to the advancement of knowledge, with anything less than abhorrence.
In the end, Edison's scare tactics didn't work; AC won out and elephants now know they have more to fear from monorails than from alternating current.
While (unsuccessfully) looking for an original, full source for Lord Kelvin's dire predictions of an end to breathable air, I found an interesting article from 1901-10-09 in New Castle News, quoted at length from a "London letter". It paints a disturbing picture of the vapory, frog-ruled world that mankind must survive in after peak oxygen is reached:
Will the human race and all animal life soon be left without air for breathing? will the world come to an end in the general asphyxiation of every living thing?
Lord Kelvin, the greatest authority today in mathematical physics, asserts that the oxygen supply of the world will be exhausted within the next five centuries.
Oxygen is the real force of the atmosphere so far as man and nearly all air-breathing animals are concerned.
Lord Kelvin has sounded an alarm which has created more discussion in scientific circles than any other pronouncement since Darwin put forth his 'Origin of Species.' No satisfactory reply has so far been offered. It is admitted that, theoretically, the oxygen in the atmosphere is diminishing. Every bucketful of coal in a furnace and every stick of wood in a cook stove burns up a portion of the world's supply of breathing air. How long will the oxygen hold out?
Is there any way in which the extravagant waste of the world's atmosphere can be checked?
Lord Kelvin's conclusions were stated in a lecture recently delivered before the British association for the promotion of science. He has made a study of the subject for many years. He is now past middle age, and ranks as the foremost living physicist.
The following is a summary of the important points of Kelvin's theory:
'The extravagant waste of oxygen by modern manufacturing processes may leave the inhabitants of the earth without air for breathing, and that within a short and calculable time. At the present rate of progress five centuries will exhaust the full supply of the world. This means the exhaustion of oxygen.
'The sum total of oxygen at our disposal is 1,020 millions of tons. Every ton of fuel used three tons of oxygen in combustion. Consequently the burning of 340,000,000 of tons of combustibles will destroy the world's air for breathing. The population of the earth is 1,500,000,000 persons. Each has to his credit 200,000 tons of combustibles. Burn this and we die, not from lack of fuel for keeping warm, but from lack of oxygen for breath. Considering the rate at which manufacturing and commerce are depleting the coal supply, less than 500 years may see the end of the human race.'
Science has rarely offered so strange and so terrible a picture of the end of the world as Lord Kelvin's theory suggests. From various scientific authorities in New York (Hallock, Woodward, Hovey, Van Ingen, Burgess and others) interesting speculation as to the gradual approach of the final catastrophe has been gathered.
With the decrease of oxygen in the air the heat of summer would become intense. This would not be the pitiless, parching heat of the desert. Moisture would hang heavy in the air. Steam would rise from the ground and the sun would be veiled in clouds of vapor.
Plants would spring up and flower in a day and trees grow almost in a night. With time for adjustment, the very luxuriance of vegetation would clear the air again and furnish breath to famished life.
But with the swift rush of Kelvin's calculations the mischief will have been accomplished in three centuries. Alarm will spread too late. As oxygen becomes precious the entire human race will strive madly for some means of increasing it. Every man will conserve his strength, because muscular effort requires the expenditures of much oxygen. Factories will not smoke any longer.
Huge electric plants will distill the seas into air. The banks of the ocean will be crowded with the humanity that comes to it to turn it by alchemy from water to breath. Every year the waters will recede under the drain of electrolyting process.
Man will become more puny with each generation. Death will confront the race and pride of power and trade and achievements in art and learning will give way to a desperate struggle for life.
Certain animals, on the other hand, will thrive apace. Huge and brilliant fishes will swim the sluggish streams. Serpents will grow to monstrous sizes and great frogs will croak in the swamps. All the lower nature may reach its flower again before the death of man, as it did before his birth.
The sturdiest of the human species will survive longest. Scarcely on the last day will the last men be able to distinguish the faces of each other in the thick vapor. They will move about in the dense atmosphere with slower and slower steps. A torpor will creep over them and they will die.
Professor William Hallock, department of physics and secretary of the faculty, Columbia university, asked about Lord Kelvin's theory, said:
'Lord Kelvin's contention rests upon a sound basis. It is true that modern manufactories are consuming fuel in larger amounts than the processes of nature now produce it.
'This combustion locks up practically that portion of the world's oxygen which was freed originally in the slow formation of this fuel through unknown ages.
'If we continue to use up our known supply of oxygen at the present rate, without in some way getting the stock reinforced, then our descendants must die of asphyxiation. But nature may in some hidden way discover a means of increasing the supply of oxygen. There may be sources of supply yet unknown to us. Man may invent an artificial process of freeing oxygen from its combinations. Or, lastly, man may become a cold-blooded animal and capable of existing upon an infinitesimal supply of oxygen.
'Vegetation upon the earth would probably have to be swept away before our supply of breathing air gives out. In that case it is a problem whether man would not starve to death before asphyxiation came upon him. Personally I do not anticipate any such catastrophe. It is one of those things interesting to speculate upon, because it is remote enough not to alarm us a great deal.
'One can always hope that something will happen before worst comes to worst.
'As animal life is now constituted it cannot live without oxygen. Vegetation, on the other hand, lives upon carbonic acid gas, which is useless to animals. This forms the main distinction between animal and vegetable life. Each supports a laboratory which works for the subsistence of the other.
'Fish and other cold-blooded animals live on an infinitesimal amount of oxygen. They use it only in muscular effort. Their body heat is the same as that of the element in which they live. Man, on the other hand, is not content with enough oxygen for this. He lives in a mean animal temperature of 98 degrees. he uses up a wasteful amount of oxygen in keeping his body temperature at 98 degrees. It is quite within the range of possibility that evolution may change this.'
UPDATE 2007-06-22: I have found a reference to Kelvin's original paper ("on the Fuel and Air Supply of the Earth", read at a meeting in 1897) that started all this, but it apparently was never published in full. For more details, read the "On the End of Free Oxygen" page.
Dear Mr. McPhee,
Your company, Accoutrements, is well known for its exclusive line of action figures based on famous historical figures, common folk of interest, and proud indigenous hominoids. However, I have noticed one glaring omission in your otherwise well-rounded collection:
Why is there no Lord Kelvin action figure?
Besides developing the science of Thermodynamics, being instrumental to the unification of diverse fields of science under the aegis of Physics, and mapping the way for Relativity and Quantum Mechanics with his identification in 1900 of the two "Nineteenth-Century Clouds" hanging over the field, Lord Kelvin was the Kevin Bacon of Victorian science and technology, playing roles both minor and profound in most important developments of his time.
Consider some of his many claims to fame:
- Was admitted to university at age 10, published his first mathematical paper at age 16, and was appointed to the chair of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow at age 22, where he stayed until his death at age 83
- Was a champion rower in his youth and later in life traveled the seas in his yacht, the Lalla Rookh
- First person on Earth to have electric lighting installed in his home
- Headed the commission that chose AC over DC for national power grids
- Discovered the material property magnetoresistance, the basis for hard drives
- Had 70 patents, including an inkjet printer in 1867
- Invented the technology that allowed for transatlantic communication cables and supervised their laying, thereby fathering the global Information Age that we currently live in
- Coined the terms "thermodynamic" and "chirality"
- Has a unit of temperature (the Kelvin), a lunar ridge (Promontorium Kelvin), and a refrigerator brand (Kelvinator) named in his honor
- Incidentally launched the mathematical field of Knot Theory while exploring the idea that atoms are made of swirling vortices of aether -- a full 100 years before String Theorists proposed similar ideas
- Defended Panspermia, the theory that life on Earth was seeded by "moss-grown fragments from the ruins of another world"
Agreed with Tesla that life on Mars was trying to contact Earth via radio signals(UPDATE See: "On the Martians Signalling Earth.")
- Is buried next to Isaac Newton
As can be plainly seen, it is a great injustice that someone as notable as Lord Kelvin does not yet have his own action figure. I dare say he even deserves a playset!
With December 2007 marking the Centennial of his passing, now would be an excellent time for you to take the lead and rectify this oversight.
Humble servant of Lord Kelvin.
Copyright © 2004-2014 Lyle Zapato & ZPi
unless otherwise noted or implied.