Sunday, September 18, 2011

James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk Maxwell of Glenlair FRS FRSE (13 June 1831 – 5 November 1879) was a Scottish physicist and mathematician. His most prominent achievement was formulating classical electromagnetic theory. This united all previously unrelated observations, experiments and equations of electricity, magnetism and even optics into a consistent theory. Maxwell's equations demonstrated that electricity, magnetism and even light are all manifestations of the same phenomenon, namely the electromagnetic field. Subsequently, all other classic laws or equations of these disciplines became simplified cases of Maxwell's equations. Maxwell's achievements concerning electromagnetism have been called the "second great unification in physics", after the first one realised by Isaac Newton. He was the first cousin of notable 19th century artist Jemima Blackburn.

Maxwell demonstrated that electric and magnetic fields travel through space in the form of waves, and at the constant speed of light. In 1865 Maxwell published A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field. It was with this that he first proposed that light was in fact undulations in the same medium that is the cause of electric and magnetic phenomena. His work in producing a unified model of electromagnetism is one of the greatest advances in physics.

Maxwell also helped develop the Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution, which is a statistical means of describing aspects of the kinetic theory of gases. These two discoveries helped usher in the era of modern physics, laying the foundation for such fields as special relativity and quantum mechanics.

Maxwell is also known for presenting the first durable colour photograph in 1861 and for his foundational work on the rigidity of rod-and-joint frameworks like those in many bridges.

Maxwell is considered by many physicists to be the 19th-century scientist who had the greatest influence on 20th-century physics. His contributions to the science are considered by many to be of the same magnitude as those of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. In the millennium poll—a survey of the 100 most prominent physicists—Maxwell was voted the third greatest physicist of all time, behind only Newton and Einstein. On the centennial of Maxwell's birthday, Einstein himself described Maxwell's work as the "most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton." Einstein kept a photograph of Maxwell on his study wall, alongside pictures of Michael Faraday and Newton.

Early life, 1831–39

James Clerk Maxwell was born 13 June 1831 at 14 India Street, Edinburgh, to John Clerk, an advocate, and Frances Cay. Maxwell's father was a man of comfortable means, of the Clerk family of Penicuik, Midlothian, holders of the baronetcy of Clerk of Penicuik; his brother being the 6th Baronet. James was the first cousin of notable 19th century artist Jemima Blackburn.

He had been born John Clerk, adding the surname Maxwell to his own after he inherited a country estate in Middlebie, Kirkcudbrightshire from connections to the Maxwell family, themselves members of the peerage.

Maxwell's parents did not meet and marry until they were well into their thirties, which was unusual for the time; moreover, his mother was nearly 40 years old when James was born. They had had one earlier child, a daughter, Elizabeth, who died in infancy. They named their only surviving child James, a name that had sufficed not only for his grandfather, but also many of his other ancestors.

When Maxwell was young his family moved to Glenlair House, which his parents had built on the 1500 acre (6.1 km2) Middlebie estate. All indications suggest that Maxwell had maintained an unquenchable curiosity from an early age. By the age of three, everything that moved, shone, or made a noise drew the question: "what's the go o' that?". In a passage added to a letter from his father to his sister-in-law Jane Cay in 1834, his mother described this innate sense of inquisitiveness:

"He is a very happy man, and has improved much since the weather got moderate; he has great work with doors, locks, keys, etc., and "show me how it doos" is never out of his mouth. He also investigates the hidden course of streams and bell-wires, the way the water gets from the pond through the wall.

Education, 1839–47

Recognising the potential of the young boy, his mother Frances took responsibility for James' early education, which in the Victorian era was largely the job of the woman of the house.[19] She was however taken ill with abdominal cancer, and after an unsuccessful operation, died in December 1839 when Maxwell was only eight. James' education was then overseen by John Maxwell and his sister-in-law Jane, both of whom played pivotal roles in the life of Maxwell.[19] His formal schooling began unsuccessfully under the guidance of a sixteen-year-old hired tutor. Little is known about the young man John Maxwell hired to instruct his son, except that he treated the younger boy harshly, chiding him for being slow and wayward. John Maxwell dismissed the tutor in November 1841, and after considerable thought, sent James to the prestigious Edinburgh Academy. He lodged during term times at the house of his aunt Isabella. During this time his passion for drawing was encouraged by his older cousin Jemima, who was herself a talented artist.

Edinburgh Academy, where Maxwell was schooled

The ten-year-old Maxwell, having been raised in isolation on his father's countryside estate, did not fit in well at school. The first year had been full, obliging him to join the second year with classmates a year his senior. His mannerisms and Galloway accent struck the other boys as rustic, and his having arrived on his first day of school wearing a pair of homemade shoes and a tunic, earned him the unkind nickname of "Daftie". Maxwell, however, never seemed to have resented the epithet, bearing it without complaint for many years. Social isolation at the Academy ended when he met Lewis Campbell and Peter Guthrie Tait, two boys of a similar age who were to become notable scholars later in life. They would remain lifetime friends.

Maxwell was fascinated by geometry at an early age, rediscovering the regular polyhedron before any formal instruction. Much of his talent however, went overlooked, and despite winning the school's scripture biography prize in his second year his academic work remained unnoticed[21] until, at the age of 13, he won the school's mathematical medal and first prize for both English and poetry.

Maxwell wrote his first scientific paper at the age of 14. In it he described a mechanical means of drawing mathematical curves with a piece of twine, and the properties of ellipses, Cartesian ovals, and related curves with more than two foci. His work, Oval Curves, was presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh by James Forbes, who was a professor of natural philosophy at Edinburgh University. Maxwell was deemed too young for the work presented. The work was not entirely original, since Descartes had also examined the properties of such multifocal curves in the seventeenth century, but Maxwell had simplified their construction.

James Clerk Maxwell statue in George Street, Edinburgh

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