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"Maxwell's wonderful equations"


Duncan Richardson recently wrote us to say that James Clerk Maxwell's work "was the supreme intellectual achievement of the 19th century."

Maxwell realized that visible light was only a small part of the entire spectrum of electromagnetic radiation that includes radio waves, microwaves, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, x-rays, and gamma rays. His luminous insight was that "light is. . .an electromagnetic disturbance in the form of waves". Einstein described his theories as "the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton."

Maxwell seems to have had a serenely productive life, though he experienced tragedy early. His mother died when he was eight. He grew up in Edinburgh and the country near Dumfries with his father. Regarded as a misfit when he went to school, shy and introspective, he published his first scientific paper at the age of fourteen, and went on to study mathematics at Cambridge, where he began to develop his great electromagnetic theory.

In 1864, when he was thirty-three, Maxwell described electromagnetic field theory, creating a linked set of differential equations that became known as 'Maxwell's wonderful equations'. His Treatise on electrostatics, electricity in motion, magnetism, and electromagnetism, which presented the general equations of the electromagnetic field, the electromagnetic theory of light, and the dynamical basis of his field theory, laid the foundation for modern communications, including satellite communications, radio, and cell phones, and radar.

When he was thirty-five, Maxwell proposed the Maxwell-Boltzmann kinetic theory of gases, and retired to his estate. He enjoyed country life. In 1871 he reluctantly agreed to become the first Cavendish Professor of Physics, and to organize Cavendish Laboratory, which would later become famous for research in physics.

He was a devout Christian, and I like to think that he took special pleasure in explaining Saturn’s rings - a century before the Voyager proved him right.

I never find it easy to write about these great scientists. I feel I can hardly do justice to their ideas.

In the Science Timeline we make a game attempt to provide some notion of their stunning insights and inventions. This text was taken from the Timeline.