Only slightly more familiar than J. Willard Gibb, Maxwell gave the world the modern understanding of alternative currents and the physics of electromagnetism. nearly every facet of modern life is dependent to some degree on Maxwell's science. Who was this man?
James Clerk Maxwell: a force for physics
Feature: December 2006
Born 175 years ago, James Clerk Maxwell carried out the first profound unification of nature's forces. Francis Everitt examines the immense contributions of the greatest mathematical physicist since Newton
Unless one is a poet, a war hero or a rock star, it is a mistake to die young. James Clerk Maxwell β unlike Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, the two giants of physics with whom he stands β made that mistake, dying in 1879 at the age of just 48. Physicists may be familiar with Maxwell, but most non-scientists, when they switch on their colour TVs or use their mobile phones, are unlikely to realize that he made such technology possible. After all, in 1864 he gave us "Maxwell's equations" β voted by Physics World readers as their favourite equations of all time β from which radio waves were predicted.
Suppose Maxwell had lived one year beyond the biblical three score and ten. He would then have been alive on 12 December 1901, the day when Guglielmo Marconi, in St John's, Newfoundland, received the first transatlantic radio signal from a transmitter in Cornwall, UK, designed by Maxwell's former student Ambrose Fleming. Or consider relativity: mention it and everyone thinks of Einstein. Yet it was Maxwell in 1877 who introduced the term into physics, and had noticed well before then how the interpretation of electromagnetic induction was different depending on whether one considers a magnet approaching a wire loop or a loop approaching a magnet. It was from these "asymmetries that do not appear to be inherent in the phenomena" that Einstein began his work on special relativity.
Had he not died so young, Maxwell would almost certainly have developed special relativity a decade or more before Einstein. Moreover, it was through reading Maxwell's article "Ether" in the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica that Albert Michelson came to invent the interferometer β a new kind of instrument that he and Edward Morley used in 1887 to discover that the speed of light is the same in all directions.
A man for all science
So what impression of Maxwell would you have gained if you had met him in his prime, as a young Scottish undergraduate Donald MacAlister did in Cambridge in 1877? You would surely have been charmed, but perhaps also surprised to meet β as MacAlister put it β "a thorough old Scotch laird in ways and speech". As the proprietor of an 1800 acre Scottish estate, Maxwell had all the qualities of the better kind of Victorian country gentleman: cultivated, considerate of his tenants, active in local affairs, and an expert swimmer and horseman too.
Few would have guessed that this "Scotch laird", so disarmingly old-fashioned even in 1877, was a scientist whose writings remain astonishingly vibrant in 2006 and the greatest mathematical physicist since Newton. In addition to his work on electromagnetism, Maxwell also contributed to eight other scientific spheres: geometrical optics, kinetic theory, thermodynamics, viscoelasticity, bridge structures, control theory, dimensional analysis and the theory of Saturn's rings. He also worked on colour vision, producing the first ever colour photograph (see box "A colourful tale").
A taste of genius
Even if his achievements are somewhat overshadowed in the public's eye by those of Einstein, whose successes were marked by a great series of events last year, it is a measure of Maxwell's standing that 2006 β the 175th anniversary of this birth β has been dubbed Maxwell Year.
More at: http://physicsweb.org/articles/world/19/12/2/1