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Issue 60 - James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)

Scotland Magazine Issue 60
December 2011


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James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)

Of Saturn's rings and the distribution of speeds.

James Clerk Maxwell is commonly ranked alongside Newton and Einstein for his extraordinary intellect and the importance of his work as a mathematician and physicist, but somehow he has not achieved quite the same celebrity status outside of the scientific world.

He was born into an upper class family in June 1831, the nephew of a baronet. Though born in Edinburgh, he moved as a young child to Glenlair on the Middlebie country estate that his father inherited in Kirkcudbrightshire.

Despite having a very comfortable upbringing from a financial point of view, Maxwell’s early years were rather sad. His mother was nearly 40 years old when Maxwell was born and he was the only surviving child of his parents’ marriage. His mother wrote very fondly of him to her sister, describing Maxwell as an inquisitive boy who constantly demanded, “show me how it doos.” His mother intended to tutor Maxwell herself, but she died of abdominal cancer when he was eight years old. Two years later Maxwell was enrolled at the Edinburgh Academy. He did not fit in well at school and earned the disparaging nickname ‘Daftie’.

That all changed when he was 13 and he won the school’s mathematics medal and first prize for poetry and English. A year later he produced a scientific paper called Oval Curves, on the mathematical means of drawing and describing curves. Though he was considered too young to present his work at the Royal Society, his remarkable achievement at such a young age brought him to the attention of eminent academics.

Maxwell attended classes at Edinburgh University from 1847. Then he enrolled at Cambridge. He graduated from Trinity College in 1854 with a first class degree in mathematics; he was elected as a fellow in October 1855.

For the rest of his life Maxwell remained in the academic world, pushed and pulled between prestigious universities in Scotland and England.

His duties as a lecturer allowed him plenty of time to continue his own research, which has had major impacts on modern technologies and the ways we perceive our world.

Primarily he is known for his unified model of electromagnetism, which brought together many earlier observations and explained how light is a form of electromagnetic wave. His claim other wavelengths would also exist was confirmed after his death, when radio was first successfully broadcast. Maxwell’s research led to great advances in X-Ray technology and telecommunications, and was even said to have paved the way for Einstein’s special theory of relativity.

Maxwell was very interested in the perception of colour, and his research on optics and colour analysis actually resulted in his taking the first ever permanent colour photograph. This provided the foundation for all colour photography.

He also introduced statistical analysis and the idea of probabilities to kinetic theory and thermodynamics, understanding that molecules do not move at a constant speed but are affected by their environment. Maxwell’s work on statistical probabilities for molecule motion and velocity has since been called ‘Maxwell’s distribution of speeds.’ In 1859 he was awarded the Adams Prize for his essay, On the stability of Saturn’s rings, in which he argued that Saturn’s rings could not be solely fluid or solid, but must be made up of small solid particles. He was proved right more than 100 years later by the results from the Voyager spacecraft.

Also in 1859, Maxwell married Katherine Mary Dewar. Maxwell was 27 years old and his bride was seven years older. Little is known about Katherine except she assisted in laboratory experiments, and a biography written by a close friend of Maxwell referred to their mutual devotion.

After 25 years of ground-breaking research, countless essays, lectures, experiments and discoveries, Maxwell became ill with the same cancer that had killed his mother. Though he returned from Glenlair to Cambridge one last time, he died on 5 November 1879, aged 48.