2006 – Year of Maxwell ?

December 17, 2006

(Crossposted to BlogPhysica )

I just realised(via a physicsweb article ) that this year is supposed to be the 175th anniversary of the birth of James Clerk Maxwell. Quite in the year to realise it I suppose😉

So what impression of Maxwell would you have gained if you had met him in his prime, as a young Scottish undergraduate Donald MacAlister did in Cambridge in 1877? You would surely have been charmed, but perhaps also surprised to meet – as MacAlister put it – “a thorough old Scotch laird in ways and speech”. As the proprietor of an 1800 acre Scottish estate, Maxwell had all the qualities of the better kind of Victorian country gentleman: cultivated, considerate of his tenants, active in local affairs, and an expert swimmer and horseman too.

Few would have guessed that this “Scotch laird”, so disarmingly old-fashioned even in 1877, was a scientist whose writings remain astonishingly vibrant in 2006 and the greatest mathematical physicist since Newton. In addition to his work on electromagnetism, Maxwell also contributed to eight other scientific spheres: geometrical optics, kinetic theory, thermodynamics, viscoelasticity, bridge structures, control theory, dimensional analysis and the theory of Saturn’s rings. He also worked on colour vision, producing the first ever colour photograph…

Even if his achievements are somewhat overshadowed in the public’s eye by those of Einstein, whose successes were marked by a great series of events last year, it is a measure of Maxwell’s standing that 2006 – the 175th anniversary of this birth – has been dubbed Maxwell Year.

Anyway, this gives me an excuse to return back to writing about Maxwell about whom Feynman famously remarked

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 19th century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics. The American Civil War will pale into provincial insignificance in comparison with this important scientific event of the same decade.

I guess I should add that the revolt of 1857 would also pale into provincial insignificance….

Since I have already linked once to poems by Maxwell , I will now link to one of the oldest biographies of Maxwell – the one written by Lewis Campbell and William Garnett (Link to PDF file).

The 1997 Digital Preservation of “The Life of James Clerk Maxwell”

..There are very few biographies of Maxwell. The most comprehensive biography was written by a life-long friend, Lewis Campbell with help from William Garnett. It is considered a primary historical reference on Maxwell. Published in 1882, shortly after Maxwell’s death, it is today found only in the rare book rooms of large libraries. However, now the entire text of the book with figures included is available here…

It is a long and interesting book filled with a lot of anecdotes written at a time when mechanical theories of ether were still in vogue. This of course, does not undermine its significance in History of physics . …

To quote what Weinberg wrote three years ago in his “Four Golden Lessons” addressed to a Scientist

Finally, learn something about the history of science, or at a minimum the history of your own branch of science. The least important reason for this is that the history may actually be of some use to you in your own scientific work. For instance, now and then scientists are hampered by believing one of the over-simplified models of science that have been proposed by philosophers from Francis Bacon to Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper. The best antidote to the philosophy of science is a knowledge of the history of science.

More importantly, the history of science can make your work seem more worthwhile to you. As a scientist, you’re probably not going to get rich. Your friends and relatives probably won’t understand what you’re doing. And if you work in a field like elementary particle physics, you won’t even have the satisfaction of doing something that is immediately useful. But you can get great satisfaction by recognizing that your work in science is a part of history.

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