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Significant Scots
James Clerk Maxwell

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 Newton.

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 engineering."

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 large."

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 middle-class upbringing."

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 equations on."

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 sixth.

Thursday, 14th October 2004
The Scotsman

You can read more about him here

You can download a book about him here
The Life of James Clerk Maxwell

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