ScotlandA Scottish Experience

January 26, 2021

James Clark Maxwell Statue Edinburgh

A Scottish experience has so much to offer from history and heritage to landscapes and mountains, at Spirit Journeys you will find a Scottish Experience for all interests.

Our Scottish Highland Experience Tour begins in Edinburgh, a city of culture and heritage in it’s own right, but don’t just take our word for it…

Ian Anderson is a guide with Spirit Journeys with a vast knowledge of Scotland’s science, technology and innovation.  Ian is our guest blogger and will impart his vast knowledge about the past, in the present and what is promised in the future.

This month Ian begins with a great scientist. One who radically altered our lives and ushered in a new scientific epoch.  Sadly, it is probable you have not heard of him and know nothing of his impact. Maybe this is because he was a humble man. Maybe because he died at the height of his powers at a relatively young age. Or maybe because his work was particularly difficult to prove experimentally at the time.

Who is James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)

James Clerk Maxwell was born at 14 India St, Edinburgh Scotland in June 1831 and died at Cambridge in November 1879 at the age of 48.

Albert Einstein had a huge admiration for him. Today’s physicists will tell you that Newton, Maxwell and Einstein were the three great Natural Philosophers of their science. But reading Einstein’s comments suggest he viewed Maxwell ahead of Newton.  When visiting Cambridge in 1922, it was remarked that he stood on the shoulders of Newton. Einstein retorted, “I stand on the shoulders of Maxwell”.

When I do foot tours of Edinburgh, one place I like to visit is Maxwell’s statue. It stands on a wide island in George St, sitting in white marble with his back to the park of St Andrews Square.

James Clerk Maxwell

Maxwells Statue on Edinburgh Foot Tours.

On the ground in front of the statue is a large metal plaque with four equations. These are the partial differential equations describing how he formulated his unified theory of Electromagnetism (EM) published in 1873. These equations are often described as magical by those who use them. Yet when he presented his theory to the Royal Society it was met with bafflement by his contemporaries and friends.

For decades scientists, Thompson, Michael Faraday to name two, had tried to unify the two concepts of electricity and Magnetism. They were obviously connected but no one knew how. This is what Maxwell did.

But it proved to be so much greater.

The equations showed how an EM wave travelled through Space. It showed that it travelled at a speed suspiciously close to that of light, i.e. that light too was an EM phenomenon. A revolutionary prediction. It showed there was an EM Spectrum that extended from gamma radiation through light to ultra-long waves.

The equations underpin nuclear, radio, radar, x rays, TV and microwaves. These technologies exist only because Maxwell described the underlying science and the equations allowed designers to design. If you look at any high school Physics text the largest section is Electromagnetism. All of the science in that chapter is based on Maxwell’s equations.

Could Maxwell have described Relativity?

Einstein used the same field equation approach as Maxwell to develop his theories of Relativity. In fact, Maxwell’s equations predict Special Relativity. If Maxwell had lived a longer life he might have described Relativity 20 years before Einstein.

Even without his seminal Treatise on Electromagnetism he would have been a great scientist. He took the world’s first Colour photograph. At 17 he published a paper “On Rolling curves” at 19 he published a paper “On the equilibrium of elastic solids” another “On the stability of the motions of Saturn’s Rings” and many more.

Reading More.

It is a pleasure to have read and studied him, there is so much more to know. If you want to read more there are many books published about him. I can recommend one “The Man who Changed Everything” by Basil Mahon. Remember “One scientific Epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell” Albert Einstein.

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