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James Clark Maxwell


James Clerk Maxwell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on the
thirteenth of November in 1831. His original name was James
Clerk. "Maxwell" was added after his mother died when James
was a mere eight years old. In 1841, Maxwell was sent to
the Edinburgh Academy when he was eleven. At the Edinburg
Academy, Maxwell had two papers published by the Royal
Society of Edinburg. From the Edinburg Academy, Maxwell
began furthering his academic career at the University of
Cambridge in 1850. There, at the University of Cambridge,
he won honors and prizes in mathematics. He went on to
become a lecturer at Trinity College and in 1854 at Trinity
College he obtained a mathematics degree. Two years later
he joined the faculty of Marischal College and married the
daughter of the principal of Marischal College. King's
College of London and Marischal College of Aberdeen
combined. Maxwell was appointed to King's College in London
in 1860.
He retired in 1865 to carry on his laboratory work but
returned back to Cambridge in 1871. While at Cambridge,
Maxwell planned the famous Cavendish laboratory and became
the first Cavendish Professor. Maxwell's theory of
electromagnetic waves established him as one of the
greatest scientists in history.
Maxwell's first major contribution to science was a study
of the planet Saturn's rings. Maxwell's theory was one of
which the rings are composed of numerous small solid
particles. This theory was confirmed one hundred years
later by the first Voyager space probe to reach Saturn.
Next, Maxwell considered the kinetic theory of gases. By
treating gases statistically in 1866 he formulated,
independently of Ludwig Boltzmann, the Maxwell-Boltzmann
kinetic theory of gases. This theory showed that
temperatures and heat involved only molecular movement.
Although Maxwell did not originate the kinetic theory of
gases, he was the first to apply methods of probability and
statistics to describe the properties of gas molecules.
The Maxwell-Boltzmann theory meant a change from a concept
of certainty, heat viewed as flowing from hot to cold, to
one of statistics, molecules at high temperature have only
a high probability of moving toward those at low
temperature. Maxwell's approach did not reject earlier
studies of thermodynamics but used a better theory of the
basis to explain the observations and experiments.
Maxwell contributed also to the study of color blindness
and color vision.
Out of his research and experimentation of the color theory
came the first color photograph, which was produced by
photographing one subject through filters of the three
primary colors of light (red, yellow, and blue) and then
recombining the images.
Maxwell's most important achievement was in his extension
and mathematical formulation of Michael Faraday's theories
of electricity and magnetic lines of force. Maxwell
suggested that electromagnetism moved through space in
waves that could be generated in the laboratory. By
calculating their velocity he found that the speed of
electromagnetic waves was the same as the speed of light.
He proposed that the phenomenon of light is therefore an
electromagnetic phenomenon. Maxwell said:
"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."
His paper On Faraday's Lines of Force was read to the
Cambridge Philosophical Society in two parts, 1855 and
1856. Maxwell showed that a few relatively simple
mathematical equations could not express the behavior of
electric and magnetic fields and their interrelation.
At the time there was no evidence of comparable waves that
could be transmitted or detected over any considerable
distance. Maxwell died in Cambridge on the fifth of
November in 1879, before his theory was successfully tested.
The four partial differential equations, known as Maxwell's
equations, first appeared in fully developed form in
Electricity and Magnetism (1873). These equations are one
of the greatest achievements of nineteenth-century
In 1888 Heinrich Hertz conducted investigations based on
Maxwell's theories and demonstrated that an electric
disturbance is transmitted through space in the form of
waves. Today, electromagnetic waves are known to cover a
wave spectrum of radiation. Maxwell expressed all the
fundamental laws of light, electricity, and magnetism in a
few mathematical equations which are commonly called the
"Maxwell Field Equations". These equations were long
considered a fundamental law of the universe, like Newton's
laws of motion and gravitation. They do not apply, however,
to phenomena that are governed by quantum theory, wave
mechanics, and relativity.
Maxwell 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.
Maxwell's theory is a unification that remains one of the
greatest landmarks in the whole of science. Maxwell 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. One of
the greatest scientists in history, James Clerk Maxwell
died on the fifth of November in 1879 in Cambridge, England
before seeing the conformation of his greatest theory - the
"Maxwell Equations".


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