James Clerk Maxwell, who was born at no. 14
India Street, Edinburgh, is generally regarded as one of the greatest
physicists the world has ever seen. Einstein placed on record his view
that the Scot's work resulted in the most profound change in the
conception of reality in physics since the time of Newton.
Maxwell's researches united electricity and
magnetism into the concept of the electro-magnetic field. He died
relatively young, and indeed some of the theories he advanced in physics
were only conclusively proved long after his death. For example, he did
not live to see proved in the laboratory his theory that when a charged
particle is accelerated, the radiation produced has the same velocity as
that of light: it is a unification that remains one of the greatest
landmarks in the whole of science. It paved the way for Einstein's special
theory of relativity. Maxwell's ideas also ushered in the other major
innovation of twentieth-century physics, the quantum theory.
Scot's winning formula trumps Einstein
IT DOESN’T mean much to those of us without a degree in physics, but a
formula devised by a Scottish scientist has been voted the best of all time
by a group of experts - beating calculations by Albert Einstein and Isaac
James Clerk Maxwell’s four electromagnetic equations, which describe how
electromagnetic fields vary in space and time, were judged best in the world
in a poll of physicists.
Maxwell, who died in 1879, took joint first place in the physics hit parade
top ten for his electromagnetic theories.
The Edinburgh-born scientist was responsible for the first colour
photograph, expressed all the fundamental laws of light, electricity and
magnetism and provided the tools to create everything from radar to radios
and televisions to mobile phones. He is also credited with fundamentally
changing our view of reality - to the extent that Einstein said: "One
scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell." Yet he
does not enjoy the same worldwide recognition as figures like Newton.
The poll, by Physics World magazine, sought the views of hundreds of readers
- including physicists and mathematicians. Maxwell enjoyed joint top billing
with the 18th-century Swiss genius Leonhard Euler, who created the
"beautiful" equation e i (pi) + 1 Dr Martin Durrani, deputy editor of
Physics World, said: "Maxwell was one of the greatest scientists who have
ever lived. To him we owe the most significant discovery of our age - the
theory of electromagnetism. He is rightly acclaimed as the father of modern
physics and he made fundamental contributions to mathematics, astronomy and
Dr David Ireland, a specialist in nuclear physics at Glasgow University,
said: "I’m not surprised that he came out on top. He really is the
physicist’s physicist. The general public might not realise who he is, but
hopefully this will spark some interest in what he has done for the world at
Maxwell was born on 13 June 1831 in India Street, Edinburgh, in a house
built by his parents, but soon the family moved to Glenlair in
Kirkcudbrightshire. The India Street building is now home to the
International Centre for Mathematical Sciences.
Maxwell’s abilities were evident at an early age. Following the death of his
mother when he was eight, Maxwell was sent to Edinburgh Academy where fellow
pupils nicknamed him "Dafty". In 1846, at the age of 14, he presented his
first paper - a treatise on ovals - to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He
went on to Cambridge University and spent much of his career in London,
before dying aged 48.
He has a mountain range on Venus, Maxwell Montes, named after him, and the
James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii is the largest astronomical
telescope in the world.
Dr Richard Dougal, a trustee of the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation and a
retired professor of mathematics at Edinburgh University, said: "Visitors
come from all over the world to Maxwell’s birthplace and know of his work,
but visitors from Britain seem more taciturn about him.
"We really don’t know the reasons for that, but it could be that Maxwell did
not have the sort of profile or life story that is usually associated with a
genius. He spent a lot of time working in London with Michael Faraday, who
was famous for having no formal education. But Maxwell had a very
He added: "If Maxwell had lived longer, then it is entirely possible that he
could have been working on the same projects as the mathematicians in
Einstein’s circle. But he died at a relatively young age."
The James Clerk Maxwell Foundation bought 14 India Street in 1993. It uses
the house as a maths laboratory and to host international seminars. In 1997,
the organisation won a £77,000 lottery grant.
Robert P Crease, author of the Physics World article, wrote: "Although
Maxwell’s equations are relatively simple, they daringly reorganise our
perception of nature, unifying electricity and magnetism and linking
geometry, topology and physics. They are essential to our understanding of
the modern world.
"A firm called Ocean Optics in Florida even sells T-shirts with Maxwell’s
Third place in the magazine poll was awarded to Newton’s second law, Fifth
place went to a formula devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger,
which determines the behaviour of the wave function that describes the
wavelike properties of a subatomic system. It relates kinetic energy and
potential energy to the total energy, and it is solved to find the different
energy levels of the system. Schrödinger applied the equation to the
hydrogen atom and predicted many of its properties with remarkable accuracy.
Einstein’s E=mc2, which shows that mass and energy are related, came in
ALASTAIR JAMIESON and MIKE MACEACHERAN
Thursday, 14th October 2004 The Scotsman
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