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November 05, 2019 Tuesday 02:23:11 PM IST

A Seer with an Eagle Vision

James Clark Maxwell, who unlocked the secrets behind heat and light, was the first unifier of diverse scientific theories on the forces governing a variety of physical phenomena.

A visionary, who developed deep insights into the reality of heat and light and explained their constitution to the world, James Clark Maxwell reigns supreme as the unsung pioneer of modern science. Maxwell was also the first unifier of diverse scientific theories on the forces governing a variety of physical phenomena, kick-starting a revolution in science.“One scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell,” quipped Albert Einstein, the path-breaking scientist of the modern times. To the question, if he had stood on the shoulders of Newton, replied Einstein: “No, I stand on Maxwell’s shoulders.”Yes, it was the scientist triad, namely, Newton- Maxwell-Einstein, who paved the way for major upheavals of the modern day science. The central role in this scientific paradigm shifts was played by James Clark Maxwell!

Life of Maxwell

Born on June 13, 1831, at 14 India Street, Edinburgh in Scotland, James Clerk Maxwell cherished an innate sense of inquisitiveness. “By the age of three, everything that moved, shone, or made a noise drew the question: ‘what's the go o' that?’”, writes one of his biographers. James was fascinated with doors, locks, keys, and so on, and "show me how it doos" was never out of his mouth. And in the course of time, Maxwell unlocked the secrets behind one of the mysterious phenomena on earth, heat and light!

Maxwell was reckoned asa wonder child. At the age of eight, he could recite long passages of Milton and the whole of the 119thPsalm of the Bible, which had176 verses! He was introduced to formal schooling under the stewardship of a young tutor, an act which was soon proven to be a disaster. The tutor consideredMaxwell as a slow learner and a wayward and began treating him harshly. On discovering such mistreatment, Maxwell’s father readily dismissed the tutor and took lead to introduce Maxwell to the wonders of the world of technology. He introduced the child Maxwell to the innovations attributed to Robert Davidson, the builder of the first known electric locomotive (1837). This exposure remained an abiding influence on Maxwell, as he explored deep into the electrical, magnetic and electromagnetic phenomena.


Maxwell attended the prestigious Edinburgh Academy, which again was not an easy place for him. He was bullied by his classmates over his rustic and eccentric appearance. But he succeeded in developing deep friendships with some of his classmates, which remained life-long. At the age of 16, Maxwell joined Edinburg University. He tookPhysics, Mathematics and Philosophy as his main subjects. He spent much of his free time on self-initiated research. Aged 19, he moved to Cambridge University, specializing in Mathematics, and soon sought transfer to Trinity College in view of a fellowship. At Trinity College, Maxwell was part of a think tank, which debated on philosophy, science and religion.

At 25, Maxwell was chosen to the Chair of Natural Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, as one of the youngest professors to occupy this position. His deep knowledge in Mathematics and the ability to apply it inthe description of physical phenomena gave him an edge. Maxwell applied mathematical principles to prove that the Saturn Rings are made of a large number of particlesthat independently orbitedthe planet Saturn and not some regular solid ring, a theory which was proven later, in 1980, on an analysis of the images sent by NASA’s Voyager-2.

In 1857, Maxwell met Katherine Mary Dewar and started their married life as "one of unexampled devotion", as testified by one of his biographers.In 1860, Maxwell moved to London to become the Chair of Natural Philosophy at King's Collegewhere he started the most productive years of his career. His association with Michael Faraday and his theories during this time,helped Maxwell to make a study on the complementarity between electricity and magnetism, which culminated in the celebrated theory of Maxwell that light is nothing but an electromagnetic wave.

In 1871, he became Cavendish Professor at the University of Cambridge, where he remained until his death in 1879, aged just 48.


Pioneer of the Grand Unification

It was during a lecture at King’s College. Maxwell was calculating the speed of propagation of an electromagnetic field based on the existing theories. To his surprise, Maxwell realized its value is close to the speed of light estimated through other experiments. It was a pure coincidence and Maxwell commented: "We can scarcely avoid the conclusion that light consists in the transverse undulations of the same medium which is the cause of electric and magnetic phenomena."

This led to the classical electromagnetic theory of light, which considers light as a transverse electromagnetic wave propagating through vacuum at a constant speed of about 300,000,000 m/s. In this manner, the phenomena of electricity, magnetism and light were unified, leading to the first ever unification of theories explaining physical phenomena based on forces, a project carried forward by Albert Einstein and which is not yet concluded. All these emerged from a serendipitous moment dawned on to James Clark Maxwell back in 1862!

Inventor of color photography


Another important contribution of Maxwell was invention of color photography. Human perception of color was thoroughly investigated by Maxwell during 1855 to 1872, based on which he published an award-winning paper titled ‘On the Theory of Color Vision’.Maxwell resorted to the existing theories of color vision enunciated by Isaac Newton and Thomas Young, the so-called Trichromatic Color Theory. According to this theory, even though white light contained seven colors (Violet-Indigo-Blue-Green-Yellow-Orange-Red), the three receptors of the eye enable humans to perceive all of them. Hence, a combination of just three coloursis enough to generate white light, though in fact,it contains seven different colors.

Maxwell had an intuition! He based himself on the Trichromatic Colour Theory to develop a technology that gave colour photographs, in the place of black-and-white photographs of the day.He thought: if a sum of any three lights could reproduce any perceivable colour, then colour photographs could be produced with a set of three coloured filters. His first attempt was to demonstrate the process of taking colour photograph of a ribbon with tartan pattern, as part of an 1861 lecture on Colour Theory at the Royal Institution of London. He took three individual photographs of the same ribbon through red, green and blue filters.  The transparent prints of the images were then projected onto a screen using three projectors equipped with similar filters. The images actually got superimposed on the screen and it was the first ever colour photograph, the ribbon with perfect tartan patterns!

Discoverer of the Statistical Law

It is well known that heat follows a path for its flow, namely from hotter objects towards the colder ones.Thus, if two objects with different temperatures are put in contact, they would eventually achieve a common temperature. It is the principle behind the measurement of temperature of body affected by fever, using a thermometer: when the thermometer is put in contact with the human body with fever, it picks up the temperature of the body in due course of time. This unidirectional flow of thermal energy is described by the so-called Second Law of Thermodynamics.


Maxwell wanted to provide an explanation to this seemingly universal law. He found an excellent leadto it in the works of Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906), who endeavouredto explain different properties of matter based on the statistical properties of position and momentum of the individual particles constituting it. Starting from Boltzmann’s hypothesis, Maxwell developed the kinetic theory of gas, which fully explained the unidirectional flow of heat energy and thus the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

According to Maxwell, the Second Law of Thermodynamics is a statistical law, governing the behaviour of a large number of particles in an enclosure. It may happen that an individual particle violates this law. However, it will be obeyed by the majority of the particles, keeping the validity of the law intact.At macroscopic scales, such violations will be reduced to the minimum, to a near-zero. In general, the chance of a statistical law being broken is comparable to the chance of pouring a glass of water into the ocean, then later dipping the glass into the ocean and finding that it filled up with exactly the same molecules you had poured in earlier. It is absolutely negligible, suggests Maxwell.

Herald of Quantum Mechanics

However, at microscopic levels, one cannot be absolutely sure of the behaviour of smaller particles. Hence, one requires a totally new type of statistics to describe it. In other words, physics at microscopic levels are absolutely special and it often requires a totally new vantage point. This contention of Maxwell eventually led to the discovery of quantum mechanics, which rests on the probabilistic description of particles as matter waves.


Maxwell prepared the way for modern physics, parting ways with the classical mechanical world view championed by Sir Isaac Newton and steering it towards a quantum mechanical world view.ThusJames Clark Maxwell could be counted as a great seer of physics, endowed with a panoramic perspective with a sharp objective of an eagle!


Dr. Varghese Panthalookaran


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