Sunday, 22 November 2009

James Clerk Maxwell

''With his ground-breaking work, James Clerk Maxwell
 had more influence on 20th century physics. than any
other scientist. He paved the way for Einstein’s theory
 of relativity, yet he was largely unheard of by the public.''

He was seen as the gentleman genius,a scientist who in
 his own way was as brilliant and influential as Charles
Darwin and Albert Einstein.

Regarded as one of the greatest and cleverest men
Scotland has ever produced, James Clerk Maxwell
 was writing scientific papers at an age when most
boys would be kicking a ball around in the street.

Sadly, however, his scientific brilliance never achieved
the recognition it deserved — unlike many of his
Victorian contemporaries, he was never granted a
peerage or a knighthood, and his
name is far from universally known.

Maxwell’s great genius lay in his development of a grand
 theory of electromagnetism. The principles of this subject
define how every piece of modern electrical equipment,
from TV through to radar and telephone, behaves.

Maxwell also carried out important work in other areas
of science such as the behaviour of molecules and the
principles of colour vision. His talents were recognised
by his fellow scientists but, because many of his theories
were complex, the general public never realised their importance.

James Clerk Maxwell was born in 1831 near Castle Douglas
 in Kirkcudbrightshire. His father’s name was simply Clerk
 — he added Maxwell after inheriting a run—down
estate in the area.

Maxwell’s mother died when he was just eight and, after
a spell being taught by private tutors, he was sent to Edinburgh
 Academy, where he received a classical education in the
English rather than Scottish tradition.

By the time he was 16, James had moved on to Edinburgh
University, where he was taught by . two of the most famous
 professors of his day-J.D. Forbes, Professor of Natural Philosophy,
 and Sir William Hamilton, who held the chair of Logic and

Both men stimulated Maxwell’s already brilliant mind,
encouraging him to develop a forensic style of thinking
and to probe and question scientific principles which
 had until then been considered as fact.

He then moved south of the border to further his studies
at Trinity College in Cambridge. He didn't enjoy the experience,
 but developed his expertise in electro magnetics and then
moved to take the Chair of Natural Philosophy at Marischal
College in Aberdeen.

Maxwell was regarded as an excellent teacher at Aberdeen
and was popular with the students. He also met and married
 the Principal's daughter, Kathleen Dewar, who was seven years
 his senior. After this, he moved back south again to take
up an offer of a professorship at King’s College in London.
His new job gave him the chance to spend  more time on the
 research which was eventually to define him as a brilliant scientist.

He carried out experimental measurements on behalf  of the
 British Association for the Advancement of  Science and
completed two more major studies in electromagnetism.

However, he didn’t enjoy his time in London and  yearned
to return to his native Scotland. He did  so when he was 34,
deciding to retire on the family estate in Galloway. 

It was a remarkably young  age to give up work, but Maxwell
 wasn’t attracted by the lure of money or  even in advancing
 his career.

He was however, interested in scientific research for  its own
 sake, and he pressed on with this.

Because he no longer had to teach, time was freed  up for
him to start work on the book which was to  make his name
 famous in scientific circles throughout the world — his
Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism.

The book, finally published in 1873, was one of the most
important scientific works of the 19th  century. It sparked
off a world-wide interest in electro magnetics with students
 of the subject keen to try to take his ideas further forward.
Maxwell's book advocated the so-called field theory which
suggested that electromagnetic action took place in the space
 between electric wires rather than — as some scientists
believed —at a distance from them.

Maxwell’s theory was extremely important, and  provided
a starting point for further work on the subject.

His assertion that electromagnetic waves could be generated
in a laboratory, for instance, led on to the development of radio.

His work is now thought of as having had the greatest influence
 of any individual scientist on 20th century physics. It paved
 the way, for instance, for Einstein’s theory of relativity, which
 established the relationship between mass and energy.

During a remarkable life, Maxwell also made other important
 breakthroughs. For instance, he managed to identify the
correct structure of Saturn’s Rings — his research was proved
 correct more than 100 years later when the Voyager probe
went to the planet.

In 1871 Maxwell accepted an academic post south of the Border
 again. He was lured back to become the first professor of the
Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, which was to become
one of the world’s most important centres for
scientific research.

The Cavendish formally opened in 1874, after Maxwell had
 made major contributions to its design. However, his
 association with it was not to last for long.

In 1877 he began to feel unwell and was diagnosed as having
abdominal cancer — the illness which had killed his mother.
He died in 1879 in Cambridge, though he was buried in a
 church near his beloved estate in Kirkcudbrightshire.

There are few physical memorials to James Clerk Maxwell,
and he has never achieved the public recognition his brilliance
deserved. But his memory lives on in the minds of the
world’s most brilliant scientists, who to this day use his
 theories to keep pushing the boundaries of their
 profession forward.

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