Person: Maxwell, James Clerk
James Clerk Maxwell was a Scottish mathematician who did revolutionary work on electricity, magnetism, optics and on the kinetic theory of gases.
Mathematical Profile (Excerpt):
- A 16 year old boy was hired to act as tutor but the arrangement was not a successful one and it was decided that James should attend the Edinburgh Academy.
- P G Tait, although almost the same age, was one class below James.
- In early 1846 at the age of 14, Maxwell wrote a paper on ovals.
- Maxwell also defined curves where there were more than two foci.
- Maxwell was not dux of the Edinburgh Academy, this honour going to Lewis Campbell who later became the professor of Greek at the University of St Andrews.
- At the age of 16, in November 1847, Maxwell entered the second Mathematics class taught by Kelland, the natural philosophy (physics) class taught by Forbes and the logic class taught by William Hamilton.
- The University of Edinburgh still has a record of books that Maxwell borrowed to take home while an undergraduate.
- Though the tutor was William Hopkins, the pupil to a great extent took his own way, and it may safely be said that no high wrangler of recent years ever entered the Senate-house more imperfectly trained to produce 'paying' work than did Clerk Maxwell.
- This brought Maxwell into daily contact with the most intellectual set in the College, among whom were many who attained distinction in later life.
- The impression of power which Maxwell produced on all he met was remarkable; it was often much more due to his personality than to what he said, for many found it difficult to follow him in his quick changes from one subject to another, his lively imagination started so many hares that before he had run one down he was off on another.
- Maxwell obtained his fellowship and graduated with a degree in mathematics from Trinity College in 1854.
- Maxwell remained at Cambridge where he took pupils, then was awarded a Fellowship by Trinity to continue work.
- One of Maxwell's most important achievements was his extension and mathematical formulation of Michael Faraday's theories of electricity and magnetic lines of force.
- Maxwell showed that a few relatively simple mathematical equations could express the behaviour of electric and magnetic fields and their interrelation.
- In November 1856 Maxwell took up the appointment in Aberdeen.
- When the subject announced by St John's College Cambridge for the Adams Prize of 1857 was The Motion of Saturn's Rings Maxwell was immediately interested.
- Maxwell and Tait had thought about the problem of Saturn's rings in 1847 while still pupils at the Edinburgh Academy.
- Maxwell decided to compete for the prize and his research at Aberdeen in his first two years was taken up with this topic.
- When the Chair of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh became vacant in 1859, Forbes having moved to St Andrews, it seemed that fate had smiled on Maxwell to bring him back to his home town.
- Many of Maxwell's friends were also applicants for this post including Tait and Routh.
- Maxwell lost out to Tait despite his outstanding scientific achievements.
- In 1860 Maxwell was appointed to the vacant chair of Natural Philosophy at King's College in London.
- The six years that Maxwell spent in this post were the years when he did his most important experimental work.
- In London, around 1862, Maxwell calculated that the speed of propagation of an electromagnetic field is approximately that of the speed of light.
- Maxwell also continued work he had begun at Aberdeen, considering the kinetic theory of gases.
- By treating gases statistically in 1866 he formulated, independently of Ludwig Boltzmann, the Maxwell-Boltzmann kinetic theory of gases.
- Maxwell's approach did not reject the earlier studies of thermodynamics but used a better theory of the basis to explain the observations and experiments.
- Maxwell left King's College, London in the spring of 1865 and returned to his Scottish estate Glenlair.
- The four partial differential equations, now known as Maxwell's equations, first appeared in fully developed form in Electricity and Magnetism (1873).
- Most of this work was done by Maxwell at Glenlair during the period between holding his London post and his taking up the Cavendish chair.
- One of the tasks which occupied much of Maxwell's time between 1874 and 1879 was his work editing Henry Cavendish's papers.
- Maxwell entered upon this work with the utmost enthusiasm: he saturated his mind with the scientific literature of Cavendish's period; he repeated many of his experiments, and copied out the manuscript with his own hand.
- Fleming attended Maxwell's last lecture course at Cambridge.
- To have enjoyed even a brief personal acquaintance with Professor Maxwell and the privilege of his oral instruction was in itself a liberal education, nay more, it was an inspiration, because everything he said or did carried the unmistakable mark of a genius which compelled not only the highest admiration but the greatest reverence as well.
- Maxwell returned with his wife, who was also ill, to Glenlair for the summer.
Born 13 June 1831, Edinburgh, Scotland. Died 5 November 1879, Cambridge, England.
View full biography at MacTutor
Tags relevant for this person:
Knot Theory, Origin Scotland, Physics
Thank you to the contributors under CC BY-SA 4.0!
Adapted from other CC BY-SA 4.0 Sources:
- O’Connor, John J; Robertson, Edmund F: MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive