Happy Birthday to James Clerk Maxwell!

On this day in 1831, Scottish Physicist and Mathematician, James Clerk Maxwell, was born in Edinburgh.

It seems that this blog has been about nought but politics and the Independence Referendum, so I thought that I’d shake things up a bit. After all, I am a Socialist, Physicist, and Idealistic Numpty.

Maxwell, who studied Physics and Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh and then at the University of Cambridge was a stunningly bright chap who revolutionised much of physics and mathematics as we know it. He was among the earliest physicists to look into the relationship between electricity and magnetism and brought about the idea that light was made up of a modulating electric field component and a perpendicular magnetic field component, both oscillating as sinusoidal waves out of phase by precisely 90°.

His work in electromagnetism lead to a series of equations, the bane of every physics student’s life, the Maxwell Equations. These equations, Gauss’s Law for Electric Fields, Gauss’s Law for Magnetic Fields, Faraday’s Law of Induction, and the Ampére-Maxwell Law. These all come in their differential and integral forms too; that all need to be memorised.

He also stuck his nose into statistical mechanics, which really is as fun as it sounds. To give you a flavour of just what he was wading into, D. L. Goodstein’s book “States of Matter” opens with the following, heart-warming words; “Ludwig Boltzmann, who spent much of his life studying statistical mechanics died in 1906 by his own hand. Paul Ehrenfest, carrying on the work died similarly in 1933. Now it is our turn to study statistical mechanics…”

He gave to statistical mechanics a set of relations, dubbed “Maxwell Relations”, that relate the second derivatives of the thermodynamic potentials; the internal energy, enthalpy, Helmholtz free energy, and the Gibbs free energy in terms of pressure, temperature, volume, and entropy.

As well as his work in electromagnetism and thermodynamics, he also delved into the world of optics. He developed a theory that the human eye would perceive a composite image take in separate red, green and blue channels as being a full colour image. His theories surrounding the perception of colour are what underpins all of colour photography and imaging. Even now, looking at this screen, you are only looking at a collection of red, blue and green lights which your eye chooses to perceive as being in colour.

It really is the mark of a great mind that his ideas are being taught, used and developed even so long after he is gone. Clerk Maxwell was indeed such a mind.

So, Happy Birthday to James Clerk Maxwell. Definitely one of the greatest minds in modern times

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4 comments

      1. A fine man indeed. The first scientist to be appointed to the House of Lords too. Also, his handwriting was truly terrible; if that’s the mark of a great physicist, then I should have a good career ahead of me!

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