The Father of Modern Physics

Hee, hee, you’re wearing a skirt!

The Father of Modern Physics

It’s not a skirt, it’s a Scottish kilt!

The Father of Modern Physics

Hmmm… You’re not wearing a skirt…

The Father of Modern Physics

No, Mummy dressed me in a different funny outfit 🙂

The Father of Modern Physics

It’s cupcake time!

The Father of Modern Physics

It’s story time!

The Father of Modern Physics

James Clerk Maxwell in his 40s
James Clerk Maxwell in his 40s

James Clerk Maxwell was a Scottish physicist, and one of the giants of physics. To him we owe the most significant discovery of our age – the theory of electromagnetism!


The Father of Modern Physics


The Father of Modern Physics

Electromagnetism is one of the four conventionally accepted fundamental interactions in nature. The others are gravitational, strong nuclear and weak nuclear. Gravitation and electromagnetism act over potentially infinite distances — across the universe. They mediate everyday macroscopic phenomena. The other two fields act over minuscule, subatomic distances. The strong interaction is responsible for the binding of atomic nuclei. The weak interaction also acts on the nucleus, mediating radioactive decay.

Electromagnetism is the force that acts between electrically charged particles. This phenomenon includes the electrostatic force acting between charged particles at rest, and the combined effect of electric and magnetic forces acting between charged particles moving relative to each other.

What charge do I have?

The Father of Modern Physics

The only thing you are charged with is too much mischief!

The Father of Modern Physics

Maxwell (1831-1879) is considered as one of the most important scientists of all time and one of the greats in the history of physics, along with Newton and Einstein. Undoubtedly, his more important scientific contribution is the theory of the electromagnetic field, fundamental not only for the comprehension of natural phenomena, but also for its technical application, in particular in the today ever-present field of telecommunications. He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on 13 June 1831 to a well-established family. Two years later, the family moved to a small country estate in Middlebie, Galloway, about 90 miles southwest of Edinburgh. His father had inherited the estate and there he enthusiastically began to supervise the construction of a new house, which he called ‘Glenlair’.

After receiving a private education in Glenlair, James was sent to Edinburgh Academy, where he spent five years. In 1847 he enrolled at Edinburgh University and, three years later, he went up to the University of Cambridge, the most influential centre of physics at the time, where he graduated as Second Wrangler in the Mathematical Tripos of 1854 (the 19th century written examination of the taught mathematics course in the Faculty of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge). In 1854, the Mathematical Tripos consisted of 16 papers spread over 8 days, totaling 44.5 hours. The total number of questions was 211! The Senior Wrangler that year was Edward Routh. They both won Smith’s Prize the same year. In the 19th century, the prize was awarded for the best performance in a series of examinations. In 1854, George Stokes included an examination question on a particular theorem which William Thomson had written to him about, which is now known as Stokes’ theorem. Some years later, Maxwell would use this theorem in his work on the electromagnetic field.

Mathematics has been studied at Cambridge for a long time. The first figure of note is Robert Recorde (born about 1550) who is credited with the invention of the equality sign “=”. A century or so later there was Wallis, Barrow and Newton. The spectacular success of Newton’s work had the fortunate effect of establishing the prestige of mathematics in Britain and Cambridge and the unfortunate effect of blinding British mathematicians to progress in mathematics elsewhere. The parochial century that followed was not a very glorious period for Cambridge or British mathematics.

Over the years, the syllabus of the Medieval university had lost its relevance and the disputation by which it was examined became a mere formality. Sometime around 1725, a voluntary examination was instituted to help order the better students. At first, the examination was oral and consisted of questions on mathematics and some philosophy. Later, the candidates wrote their answers but the questions were dictated and finally, in around 1790, the questions were printed. Thus was born the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos, the grandparent of every university examination in the world. You know who to blame now!

In 1856, Maxwell got the Chair of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College, one of the two universities in Aberdeen at that time, where he spent four years. There he began his research on colour theory. Maxwell was awarded the Adams Prize for an essay titled ‘On the stability of the motion of Saturn’s rings’ which was published in 1859 and where he concluded that “the only system of rings which can exist is one composed of an indefinite number of unconnected particles, revolving around the planet with different velocities according to their respective distances”. Maxwell’s work about the Saturn’s rings was defined by George Airy, the Astronomer Royal, as “one of the most remarkable applications of mathematics to physics that I have ever seen”. In 1895, sixteen years after Maxwell’s death, the spectroscopic study made by the American astronomer James Keeler confirmed the theory of Maxwell that Saturn’s rings are made up of countless small objects.

The real Lord of the Rings :smile: Hubble Space Telescope images of Saturn and its rings
The real Lord of the Rings 🙂 Hubble Space Telescope images of Saturn and its rings

In 1860, he left Aberdeen to occupy another professorship in King’s College, London. The five years Maxwell spent in London were probably the most creative in his life: colour vision and gas kinetic theories as well as the dynamical theory of the electromagnetic field. Using red, green and blue filters, he produced the first colour photography – of a Scottish tartan ribbon. The photograph was projected onto a screen at the Royal Institution in May of 1861. Maxwell was elected to the Royal Society three weeks later.

The first  coloured photograph, 1861, James Clerk Maxwell
The first coloured photograph, 1861, James Clerk Maxwell

I like colour photographs! They show how cute we are! 🙂

The Father of Modern Physics

In 1864 Maxwell, before the Royal Society of London in ‘A Dynamic Theory of the Electro-Magnetic Field’, said: “We have strong reason to conclude that light itself – including radiant heat and other radiation, if any – is an electromagnetic disturbance in the form of waves propagated through the electro-magnetic field according to electro-magnetic laws.”

Professor R V Jones commented: “This paper is the first pointer to the existence of radiation other than light and heat, and ranks as one of the greatest leaps ever achieved in human thought.”

The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) is a submillimetre-wavelength telescope at Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii. The telescope is near the summit of Mauna Kea at 4,092 m. Its primary mirror is 15 metres across: it is the largest astronomical telescope that operates in submillimetre wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum (far-infrared to microwave). Scientists use it to study our Solar System, interstellar dust and gas, and distant galaxies. JCMT first “saw light” in 1987, and it is so named because it makes its observations via non-visible light frequencies whose existence Maxwell had predicted.

James Clerk Maxwell Telescope
James Clerk Maxwell Telescope

In 1865, he published an article titled ‘A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field’, which not only included the electromagnetic field equations (today known as Maxwell’s equations), but also predicted the existence of electromagnetic waves moving at the speed of light, and presented the electromagnetic theory of light. In this article he stated: “it seems we have strong reason to conclude that light itself (including radiant heat, and other radiations if any) is an electromagnetic disturbance in the form of waves propagated through the electromagnetic field according to electromagnetic laws”. This year, we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the electromagnetic theory of light, which is one of the milestones commemorated in the IYL 2015.

Glenlair, circa 1880 after enlargement by James Clerk Maxwell.
Glenlair, circa 1880 after enlargement by James Clerk Maxwell.

The same year, Maxwell resigned his King’s professorship voluntarily to go back to his Scottish estate in Glenlair to write his magnus opus, A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, published in 1873, two volumes of more than 500 pages each, peak of nineteenth century physics and comparable to Newton’s Principia, published almost two centuries before. In his Treatise Maxwell manages to unify all known phenomena at the time regarding electricity and magnetism.

In 1871, Maxwell was appointed as the first Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics.

The Great Exhibition in 1851 was the first British exhibition open to international manufactured products and exposed British design to foreign competition. It was organised by Henry Cole, who had visited a similar exhibition in Paris, and who convinced Prince Albert to organise an international exhibition. It was held in a purpose-built Crystal Palace in Hyde Park.

Hyde Park, Crystal Palace, 1861
Hyde Park, Crystal Palace, 1861

The success of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the requirements of an industrial society emphasised the need for the practical training of scientists and engineers. Up until this time, physics meant theoretical physics and was regarded as the province of the mathematicians. The outstanding experimental contributions of Isaac Newton, Thomas Young and George Gabriel Stokes were all carried out in their colleges. The foundation of the Natural Sciences Tripos at Cambridge in 1851 set the scene for the need to build dedicated experimental physics laboratories and this was achieved through the generosity of the Chancellor of the University, William Cavendish, the 7th Duke of Devonshire. He provided £6,300 to meet the costs of building a physics laboratory, on condition that the Colleges provided the funding for a Professorship of Experimental Physics. This led to the appointment of Maxwell as the first Cavendish professor in 1871. Maxwell supervised every detail of the construction of the Laboratory. Other directors who succeeded Maxwell were Lord Rayleigh, J.J. Thomson and Rutherford. To date 29 Nobel Prize winners have worked in the Cavendish Laboratory.

Cavendish Laboratory in Maxwell's time
Cavendish Laboratory in Maxwell’s time

At its new site on J.J.Thomson Avenue in West Cambridge…

Cavendish Laboratory
Cavendish Laboratory

Maxwell died in 1879 at the early age of 48 from stomach cancer and did not live to see his theories of electricity, magnetism and statistical physics fully confirmed by experiment. Even when Hertz proved the existence of the predicted EM waves there was still no broad understanding of Maxwell’s near-magical ideas or of where they would lead. Indeed, when asked, Hertz said there were “no applications” for the waves!

Maxwell was just too visionary to be properly understood and accepted in his own time and in terms of longer term recognition (once his predictions were proven and the ‘radio age’ could begin), he was long gone. Unfortunately, his work is less famous than that of the other greats, possibly because his crowning glory – Maxwell’s Equations – are so hard to understand.

Maxwell's Equations presented using vector calculus
Maxwell’s Equations presented using vector calculus

In producing these equations, Maxwell was the first scientist ever to unify any of nature’s fundamental forces. He discovered that electricity and magnetism are actually, at the deepest level, the same force – the electromagnetic force. In doing so, Maxwell proved that light is an electromagnetic wave, and so linked electricity, magnetism and optics.

The theory was controversial when he first published it in 1864. Not many people realized that Maxwell’s Equations accurately and completely described electromagnetism. It was eight years after Maxwell’s death, in 1887, when Heinrich Hertz finally demonstrated by experiment that there truly are electromagnetic waves, which behave in exactly the way Maxwell had predicted. By 1901 Guglielmo Marconi was transmitting radio waves – the lowest energy form of electromagnetic waves – across the Atlantic Ocean, from Britain to Canada. The era of modern, wireless telecommunications had begun.

So much of the technology in the world today stems from his grasp of basic principles of the universe. Wide ranging developments in the field of electricity and electronics, including radio, television, radar and communications, derive from Maxwell’s discovery – which was not a synthesis of what was known before, but rather a fundamental change in concept that departed from Newton’s view and was to influence greatly the modern scientific and industrial revolution.

As if this achievement were not enough, his kinetic theory of gases accurately explained the origin of temperature and he introduced statistics and probability into the physics of the very small, laying the foundation for quantum theory.

In addition to his great discoveries, in his personal life, he was known for his capacity for hard work, his friendliness, personal kindness and generosity.

Maxwell’s personality was quite the opposite of the thrusting egos whose very names seem still to insist on their importance, from Newton to Edison. Freeman Dyson has gone further and written that Maxwell was “absurdly and infuriatingly modest”, referring to an address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Liverpool in 1870 on the various theories of what light might be and what rules might govern its behaviour. With typical oddball humour Maxwell outlined the prevailing theories of the day, such the Thomson/Helmholtz vortex theory and only referred to his own well established but as yet unproven theory of light as he finished, saying “there is another theory of electricity which I prefer…”. Dyson wonders whether this was all tongue in cheek and whether Maxwell expected the more discerning members of the audience to understand the joke, but also suggests Maxwell was at fault in failing to promote his ideas and concludes that “the moral of the story is that modesty is not always a virtue”.

Ivan Tolstoy, in his biography of Maxwell, wrote: “Maxwell’s importance in the history of scientific thought is comparable to Einstein’s (whom he inspired) and to Newton’s (whose influence he curtailed).”

Albert Einstein said: “The special theory of relativity owes its origins to Maxwell’s equations of the electromagnetic field.” When Einstein was asked if he had stood on the shoulders of Newton, he replied: “No, I stand on Maxwell’s shoulders.”

Interesting story… Are you going to eat that? 🙂

The Father of Modern Physics

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