James Clerk Maxwell
James Clerk Maxwell was one of the greatest scientists of the nineteenth century. He is best known for the formulation of the theory of electromagnetism and in making the connection between light and electromagnetic waves. He also made significant contributions in the areas of physics, mathematics, astronomy and engineering. He considered by many as the father of modern physics.
Maxwell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1831. Even though most of his formal higher education took place in London, he was always drawn back to his family home in the hills of Scotland. As a young child, Maxwell was fascinated with geometry and mechanical models. When he was only 14 years old, he published his first scientific paper on the mathematics of oval curves and ellipses that he traced with pins and thread. Maxwell continued to publish papers on a variety of subjects. These included the mathematics of human perception of colors, the kinetic theory of gases, the dynamics of a spinning top, theories of soap bubbles, and many others.
Maxwell's early education took place at Edinburgh Academy and the University of Edinburgh. In 1850 he went on to study at the University of Cambridge and, upon graduation from Cambridge, Maxwell became a professor of natural philosophy at Marischal College in Aberdeen until 1860. He then moved to London to become a professor of natural philosophy and astronomy at King's College. In 1865, Maxwell's father died and he returned to the family home in Scotland to devote his time to research. In 1871 he accepted a position as the first professor of experimental physics at Cambridge where he set up the world famous Cavendish Laboratory in 1874.
While at Aberdeen, Maxwell was challenged by the subject of the Adams Prize of 1857: the motion of Saturn's rings. He had previously thought and theorized about the nature of the rings when he was only 16 years old. He decided to compete for the prize, and the next two years were taken up with developing a theory to explain the physical composition of the rings. He was finally able to demonstrate, by purely mathematical reasoning, that the stability of rings could only be achieved if they consisted of numerous small particles. His theory won him the prize and, more significantly, nearly a hundred years later, the Voyager 1 space probe proved his theory right.
Much of modern technology has been developed from the basic principles of electromagnetism formulated by Maxwell. The field of electronics, including the telephone, radio, television, and radar, stem from his discoveries and formulations. While Maxwell relied heavily on previous discoveries about electricity and magnetism, he also made a significant leap in unifying the theories of magnetism, electricity, and light. His revolutionary work lead to the development of quantum physics in the early 1900's and to Einstein's theory of relativity.
Maxwell began his work in electromagnetism by extending Michael Faraday's theories of electricity and magnetic lines of force. He then began to see the connections between the approaches of Faraday, Reimann and Gauss. As a result, he was able to derive one of the most elegant theories yet formulated. Using four equations, he described and quantified the relationships between electricity, magnetism and the propagation of electromagnetic waves. The equations are now known as Maxwell's Equations.
One of the first things that Maxwell did with the equations was to calculate the speed of an electromagnetic wave and found that the speed of an electromagnetic wave was almost identical to the speed of light. Based on this discovery, he was the first to propose that light was an electromagnetic wave. In 1862 Maxwell wrote:
"We can scarcely avoid the conclusion that light consists in the transverse undulations of the same medium which is the cause of electric and magnetic phenomena."
This was a remarkable achievement, for it not only unifies the theories of electricity and magnetism, but of optics as well. Electricity, magnetism and light can now be understood as aspects of a single phenomenon: electromagnetic waves.
Maxwell also described the thermodynamic properties of gas molecules using statistical mechanics. His improvements to the kinetic theory of gases included showing that temperature and heat are caused only by molecular movement. Though Maxwell did not originate the kinetic theory, he was the first to apply probability and statistics to describe temperature changes at the molecular level. His theory is still widely used by scientists as a model for rarefied gases and plasmas.
Maxwell also contributed to the development of color photography. His analysis of color perception led to his invention of the trichromatic process. By using red, green and blue filters he created the first color photograph. The trichromatic process is the basis modern color photography.
Maxwell's particular gift was in applying mathematical reasoning in solving complex theoretical problems. Maxwell's Electromagnetic Equations are perfect examples of how mathematics can be used to provide relatively simple and elegant explanations of the complex mysteries of the universe. Richard Feynman wrote of Maxwell:
"From a long view of the history of mankind, seen from, say, ten thousand years from now, there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the nineteenth century will be judged as Maxwell's discovery of the laws of electrodynamics."
Maxwell continued his work at the Cavendish Laboratory until illness forced him to resign in 1879. He returned to Scotland and died soon afterwards. He was buried with little ceremony in a small churchyard in the village of Parton in Scotland.
BACK TO PIONEERS IN OPTICS
Questions or comments? Send us an email.
© 1995-2022 by
Michael W. Davidson
and The Florida State University.
All Rights Reserved. No images, graphics, software, scripts, or applets may be reproduced or used in any manner without permission from the copyright holders. Use of this website means you agree to all of the Legal Terms and Conditions set forth by the owners.
This website is maintained by our
Graphics & Web Programming Team
in collaboration with Optical Microscopy at the
National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.
Last Modification Friday, Nov 13, 2015 at 02:19 PM
Access Count Since December 24, 1999: 145806
Visit the websites of our partners in education: