Physics

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)


At age sixteen, James began studying mathematics, natural philosophy, and logic at the University of Edinburgh. In 1850 he moved to Cambridge, joining Peterhouse College. Because it was easier to obtain a scholarship, he moved to Trinity College, which had been attended by Isaac Newton (1642 - 1727). Graduated in 1854 in mathematics with great prominence among the other students. Nevertheless, he did not receive the best student award because he did not adequately prepare for the heavy end-of-course exams.

Maxwell became a member of Trinity College where he continued to work until 1856. That year, as he wanted to spend more time with his seriously ill father, he went to work as a Professor of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College in Aberdeen, Northern Scotland. While at Trinity, Maxwell began his research on electricity and magnetism. His first work on the subject was published in 1856.

In February 1858 Maxwell became engaged to Katherine Mary Dewar and married her in June 1859.

In 1859, he ran for Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University, but lost his post to Peter Guthrie Tait (1831-1901), his personal friend since the time of the Edinburgh Academy. Despite his qualities as a mathematician, Maxwell was not a good teacher for beginning students, which favored Tait.

Despite becoming the son-in-law of the director of Marischal College, Maxwell was fired in 1860 when he joined King's College and had to look for another job. In 1860 Maxwell was appointed to the chair of Natural Philosophy at King's College London where he remained until 1865.

After leaving King's College in London, Maxwell returned to his childhood region of Glenlair, writing his famous book on electromagnetism, the 1873 Treaty on Electricity and Magnetism.

In 1871, he went to work, after much reluctance on his part, as director of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. He helped design and develop this important laboratory, which would later include important physicists such as J. J. Thomson (1856 - 1940) and Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937).

Between 1874 and 1879, he devoted himself intensely to the editing of Henry Cavendish's works and manuscripts on mathematics and experimental electricity, which he published in 1879. By this time, he had serious health problems from stomach cancer. He returned with his sick wife to Glenlair for the summer. Maxwell was in great pain and his health continued to worsen. When he returned to Cambridge after the summer, he could barely walk; soon died.

Maxwell's place among the great physicists of the nineteenth century is due to his research on electromagnetism, gas kinetic theory, color vision, Saturn rings, geometric optics, and some engineering studies. He has written four books and about one hundred scientific articles. He was also scientific editor of the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, to which he contributed several entries.

Maxwell's solid knowledge of the history and philosophy of science is reflected in certain philosophical approaches in his original articles and in his works in general. His works have exerted, and continue to exert, enormous influence in all physics. The famous theory of constrained relativity was born from studies of issues related to electromagnetism and the "Maxwell equations." The electrostatic and electromagnetic unit systems introduced by Maxwell are used, with some changes, by physicists and engineers to this day. His studies on kinetic theory of gases were further developed and developed by Boltzmann, Plank, Einstein, and others. Following Hertz's experiment that confirmed the existence of electromagnetic waves, the development of new technologies based on the electromagnetic nature of light has become a fact that has and continues to exert enormous influences on our lives.

Because Maxwell used to work on many different subjects in sequence, sometimes even publishing papers on the same subject with several years between them, we will not follow a chronological sequence in describing his works - but rather present certain aspects of some. of his contributions to physics, such as color vision theory, thermodynamics, and electromagnetism.