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Remembering James Clerk Maxwell

2015 marks the International Year of Light, observing achievements in light science and its countless applications. What better opportunity to shine a light on one of Scotland’s great innovators, a genius whose immense contributions to science and technology are often overlooked – James Clerk Maxwell.

Maxwell’s equations and theories are revolutionary in understanding electromagnetism, paving the way for modern technology and influencing renowned scientists such as Albert Einstein. An outspoken advocate of Maxwell’s significance, Einstein declared “One scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell”.

Born in 1831 Edinburgh, James Clerk Maxwell was inquisitive from a young age and quizzically sought to understand the world around him. Having grown up on his family’s Galloway estate, Maxwell returned to the city for an education at Edinburgh Academy where he excelled in mathematics. His exceptional brightness led him to geometrical discoveries and at the age of 14 he read for the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Studying at the University of Edinburgh, James Clerk Maxwell embraced practical scientific experiments. One of his early essays predicted that Saturn’s rings were made of many individual particles, as opposed to one large ring as previously assumed. He was also among the first to develop colour photography, combining core colours to create other shades and filtering light through coloured plastic to develop photographs. However it is James Clerk Maxwell’s work on electromagnetic waves that make him historic.

Electricity and magnetism remained at the time unexplained phenomenon, which could be observed but which lacked the underlying principles necessary for understanding. English scientist, Michael Faraday (1791 – 1867) had demonstrated that electricity and magnetism must be connected, as either could be changed into the other. Bringing the two together would combine the fields, creating a buzz of energy and spreading electromagnetic waves into space.

Michael Faraday
Michael Faraday

What Faraday’s work lacked was the mathematics needed to fully explain his discoveries, so Maxwell took the next step. Scientist and broadcaster, Dr Howie Firth explains “Faraday was so delighted to see someone with Maxwell’'s extraordinary mathematic talent deploying the full panoply of mathematical techniques and skills on the problem. Maxwell took on the challenge, made various models in his mind and eventually came up with an answer.”

Maxwell boiled Faraday’s information down to a few lines of maths which showed the connection between electricity and magnetism, demonstrating that the two working together (electromagnetism) could give off different kinds of wave travelling at the speed of light. Between 1855 and 1865, Maxwell published papers which mathematically explained how electricity and magnetism work. These formulas are still referred to in modern mathematics as Maxwell’s Equations.

The unification of light and electricity allowed Maxwell to predict a vast range of radiation frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum, many years before they could all be detected. Many of today’s everyday communications, medicines, technologies and modern appliances depend on our understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum. 2015’s International Year of Light commemorates a wide range of science and technological anniversaries, including the 150th anniversary of James Clerk Maxwell’s ground-breaking 1865 publication on light and the electromagnetic field, 'A Dynamic Theory of the Electromagnetic Field.’

BBC World Service produced a Discovery programme on Maxwell, Scotland's Forgotten Einstein, James Clerk Maxwell, presented by Glasgow City of Science's Dr Susie Mitchell and featuring contributors from Glasgow Science Centre and the University of Glasgow. Susie Mitchell has also been inducted as a trustee of the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation. Based in the Edinburgh house of Maxwell’s birth, the foundation's objectives include commemorating Maxwell’s achievements, providing a stimulating meeting environment for mathematicians and scientists, increasing public awareness through special events and encouraging young students to pursue maths and science through support grants.

James Clerk Maxwell: What's the go o' that? - produced by Glasgow Science Centre

LINKS

BBC World Service Discovery - Scotland's Forgotten Einstein, James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk Maxwell Foundation

Glasgow Science Centre


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