Maxwell: World’s Greatest Physicist Ever?

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James Clark Maxwell was one of the most influential physicist of 19th century.

James Clerk Maxwell was one of the most influential scientists to ever have lived. His most widely known work was on electromagnetism and the kinetic theory of gases.

While a pupil, he published his first scientific paper, ‘On the description of oval curves, and those having a plurality of foci’, extending the work of Descartes.

Born in 1831, in Edinburgh, Maxwell spent majority of his childhood at Glenlair House in Galloway, Scotland. After the death of his mother, at the age of ten, he lived with an aunt during term times in order to attend Edinburgh Academy, although he continued to spend much of his time at Glenlair throughout his life. While a pupil, he published his first scientific paper, ‘On the description of oval curves, and those having a plurality of foci’, extending the work of Descartes. As he was only 14 at the time of publication, it had to be presented by Professor Forbes, a friend of his father, who had originally seen merit in this work.

Upon leaving the Academy two years later, he studied at the University of Edinburgh until the age of 19 (publishing one optics and one materials paper before leaving), and then left to study math at Cambridge. He completed this course of study in 1854, with the second highest final examination mark (the man who beat him to it was the mathematician Edward Routh), and was then made a fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge. Maxwell wrote poetry in his free time, and the first verse of “A Problem in Dynamics” written during this era of his life runs as follows:

“An in-extensible heavy chain

Lies on a smooth horizontal plane,

An impulsive force is applied at A,

Required the initial motion of K.”

In 1859, as the Chair of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College, Aberdeen, he wrote “On the Stability of small solid particles rather than a continuous solid or fluid as this was the only way to ensure that they would remain solid. Many of these predictions were confirmed by the Voyager space probes in the 1980s. During this time,he became engaged to and married to Katherine Mary Dewar who worked with him throughout his scientific career, especially on color theory and thermodynamics. In addition to research and teaching duties within the college, he would also give public lectures.

Maxwell’s equations, his most well-known achievement, mathematically describe the relationship between electric and magnetic fields, thus unifying them, and show that the speed of propagation of an electric field is the same as that of light.

Throughout his life, Maxwell had an intense fascination with color, and it was at King’s College, London, where he went after the merging of Marischal College with King’s College Aberdeen,that the world’s first light fast color photograph was taken. Three different photographs were taken with different color filters over the camera lens.These were projected onto a screen-through the relevant color filters,and the combination formed a complete color photograph. This built on Maxwell’s own earlier work on the way that colors are formed by mixing of primary colors.

Maxwell’s equations, his most well-known achievement, mathematically describe the relationship between electric and magnetic fields, thus unifying them, and show that the speed of propagation of an electric field is the same as that of light. These were published in his “Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism”, in 1873. This understanding of electromagnetism has enabled the current communications network – some might say – radically affecting the course of history.

Despite supposedly retiring, he continued to work, which included among other things, writing a thermodynamics textbook.

He also contributed to thermodynamics, improving the theory of the velocity distribution of gas particles at different temperatures, which was later generalized by Ludwig Boltzmann. In addition, the Maxwell relations (not to be confused with Maxwell’s equations) relate thermal properties with the mechanical properties of a substance.

Maxwell resigned his London post, with the intention to retire to Glenlair, where he spent six years. Despite supposedly retiring, he continued to work, which included among other things, writing a thermodynamics textbook. He was invited back to Cambridge to supervise the development of the Cavendish Laboratory in 1871 and edited the notes of Henry Cavendish, the man who discovered hydrogen and calculated the density of the Earth. In 1879, he died aged 48 at home in Cambridge, and was buried near his family home of Glenlair. His wife Katherine survived him by seven years.

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