Great scientific discoveries attributable to beer (part 1 of ?)

Did you know that James Prescott Joule, who gave his name to the SI unit for energy, was a brewer?

James Joule, image in public domain courtesy of WikipediaWe didn’t until watching an excellent BBC4 documentary, “Absolute Zero” (in turn based on a book called “Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold” by Tom Schachtman). Apparently this documentary is scheduled for broadcast in the US on PBS, whatever that is…

Anyway, the story goes that he (like other nineteenth-century industrialists) was interested in the relationship between heat and “work done”, which had very practical applications – how could you get the most “work” out of the least heat? He set about measuring the effects of this. Apparently, because brewers were unique in having highly sensitive thermometers, he was able to get very precise results from his experiments and was a key player in the development of modern day thermodynamics, influencing William Thomson, a.k.a Lord Kelvin.

There’s possibly some dramatic licence here (the Wikipedia article on Mr Joule downplays the brewery angle) but we liked it anyway.