Thursday, September 12, 2013

James Clerk Maxwell

Recently, I went on a scavenger hunt around Edinburgh, Scotland in search of the birthplace of James Clerk Maxwell. Along the way, I visited the Royal Society of Scotland, which was a short walk from where Maxwell was born at 14 India St. 

I also visited the statue of James Clerk Maxwell, complete with his dog by his side. Along the side of the statue, his legacy was written--in the form of his four equations.

 With these equations, Maxwell united electricity and magnetism in a complete way and discovered that light was an electromagnetic wave as a prediction of his theory. His equations went on to predict that all electromagnetic waves travel at the same speed, the speed of light, regardless of frequency.   

Maxwell’s equations finally united the fields of Electricity and Magnetism.  Before Maxwell, the idea that magnetism could generate electricity (Faraday’s Law) was not stated in a clear mathematical language.  Beyond this, the equations added a new term that predicted that when an electric field is changing, a magnetic field would be produced – a new and original idea!

 Like Newton, Maxwell's contributions reach into all fields of physics. He applied similar mathematical prowess to the theory of color vision (he made the first color photograph), Saturn’s rings, and the statistical mechanics of ideal gases.  Maxwell was also an experimentalist and a delighted observer of the world around him. He loved rainbows and observing natural phenomena. One of my favorite stories about Maxwell describes him on a sunny day. He saw ice crystals forming atop a pond, and the sun was reflecting a rainbow. These simple moments fueled the curiosity of one of history's most significant physicists and mathematicians.

 During his life, Maxwell won many awards for his work, although he is much less well-known to the general public than Einstein or Newton.  This may be because it takes physics knowledge and sophistication to truly appreciate his contributions--many physicists value his work as highly. Feynman noted that “From a long view of the history of mankind, seen from, say, ten thousand years from now, there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell's discovery of the laws of electrodynamics. The American Civil War will pale into provincial insignificance in comparison with this important scientific event of the same decade.”

 Maxwell was a member of the prestigious Royal Society in London. He was also a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and considered himself a Scotsman, although he lived in London for much of his life and even worked at the Cavendish LaboratoryMaxwell took on a project chronicling the reclusive Henry Cavendish's electrical research. And he literally wrote the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on atoms. He even predicted (correctly, I might add) that Saturn's rings are made of innumerable individual bodies, winning the Adams Prize in 1856.  

Today, when you are listening to the radio or using cell phone signals, remember that all of electricity is described by Maxwell's equations.

To find out more about James Clerk Maxwell or to arrange a visit, check out the website of the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation. 

Stay the coming weeks, I will review my favorite Maxwell biography.  

the streets of Edinburgh

Edinburgh appears much like it would in Maxwell's day. The entire Old Town and New Town are preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Sites. 

Below, a view of the Pentland Hills over rooftops

Above, the mighty Edinburgh Castle

Above, the Salisbury Crags near Arthur's Seat, an extinct volcano

No comments:

Post a Comment