Physicist and Poet James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk MaxwellOn this day in 1831, the physicist James Clerk Maxwell was born. He is one of the “big three” in physics, along with Newton and Einstein. He died of abdominal cancer at the young age of 48, yet he did an amazing amount of work. There are three fundamental things that he did: color analysis, statistical mechanics, and electromagnetism.

His work on color analysis was not limited to physics. He determined that a color photograph could be created by taking three identical photographs of the same subject each with a different color filter: red, green, and blue (RGB). Six years after publishing this work, he became the first man to demonstrate a color photograph (photographer Thomas Sutton did the actual mechanics of it). This alone would be enough to have made him a very important physicist and inventor. He did much else on the subject including work on color-blindness and other aspects of color perception.

His second great contribution to science was in the field of statistical mechanics. His contribution here was to show how thermodynamics was really just the macro-scale behavior of countless particles doing their own things. The most important part of this was to explain the second law of thermodynamics which states that the entropy of a system always increases. He also showed that the temperature of gas (a thermodynamic measurement) represented the velocity distribution of the gas molecules. This work would later be generalized by Ludwig Boltzmann who more or less invented what we now know as statistical mechanics, a subject that terrorizes physics students to this day.

On a personal note, I never took thermodynamics as an undergraduate. I studied statistical mechanics with a professor known only slightly better for his mathematical brilliance as for his seeming cluelessness about the terror these subjects produced in the young students. In fact, I think he was responsible for this mass change of students from the far more rigorous BS program to the BA. I loved him, of course, even while I struggled—most of all in statistical mechanics. But in graduate school, I was forced to take a course in thermodynamics, and I found it almost trivial. If you understand the micro-scale well, the macro-scale becomes so much easier because your intuition has changed. Or at least, that’s how it worked for me. Thermodynamics without statistical mechanics is kind of like trying to memorize the behavior of a black box. My mind just doesn’t work that way.

Maxwell’s third and greatest contribution to physics was in the field of electromagnetics. Or maybe that’s the wrong way to put it, because Maxwell invented the field. Certainly people before him understood that changing electrical fields could create magnetic fields. But Maxwell was the first to see and quantify how electricity and magnetism were essentially just different manifestations of the same thing. This work was eventual reduced to the four Maxwell Equations, although their modern simple beauty was the result of work done by Oliver Heaviside a couple of years after Maxwell had died. That is the way science works: it is a group effort. Maxwell’s work came directly out of his trying to understand Faraday’s lines of force. But Maxwell was still very much living in Newton’s world. It would take another three decades before Einstein fixed the one problem with Maxwell’s theory: it’s need for a medium in which electromagnetic waves propagated. That is, by the way, what Einstein was doing in Special Relativity: his interest was in Maxwell’s work.

I do, however, think that while great people like Maxwell should be celebrated for their great work, there is much luck to it. Would Maxwell have made such great contribution if he had been born 50 years earlier or later. He was the right person at the right time. And what if he had been born in a small village in Kenya to poor fishermen? That’s not to say that his brilliance wouldn’t have shined greatly. (He might have revolutionized the fishing industry!) But there wouldn’t be t-shirts and coffee mugs celebrating him today:

Maxwell's Equations

I have always thought of Maxwell as more of a mathematician than a physicist—at least in his orientation toward the world. And indeed, he did have some opinions that seem rather mystical to me. Had he lived longer, I suspect we would have seem more of that. He was certainly not an empiricist when it came to the mind and social interaction. This is especially interesting as we are now making great progress in learning how micro-scale phenomenon in humans explain macro-scale behaviors of individuals and groups—work very similar to what Maxwell did with statistical mechanics and thermodynamics.

Those who knew him, said that Maxwell was socially awkward. But he was also a Romantic. He wrote many poems and set them to music. He sang and accompanied them on guitar. I find that wonderfully sweet, especially since I always imagined him as this great brain that did one thing really well. You can check out some of his work on Poem Hunter. Many of them are quite charming. And some of them are about physics!

Happy birthday James Clerk Maxwell!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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