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Scientists – James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk Maxwell Profile Image

Born:  June 13, 1831
Died:  November 5, 1879
Nationality:  Scottish

Field of Study:  Physics & Mathematics
Best Known For:  Maxwell’s Equations
Religion:  Christian
Denomination:  Presbyterian

“Christianity-that is, the religion of the Bible-is the only scheme or form of belief which disavows any possessions on such a tenure. Here alone all is free. You may fly to the ends of the world and find no God but the Author of Salvation. You may search the scriptures and not find a text to stop you in your explorations.”

Life

James Clerk Maxwell grew up during the Victorian era and much of his early childhood education was spent learning scripture and poetry with his mother. Young Maxwell loved to recite the poetry of John Milton and was well versed in the Book of Psalms. Sadly, his mother died when he was eight years old due to a battle with abdominal cancer, leaving Maxwell in the hands of his father. Here, Maxwell was raised in isolation and this caused him to not fit in at school.[1] 

Maxwell grew fond of geometry and often rediscovered difficult ideas well before he received any formal education. Maxwell excelled in the topics of scripture, English, and poetry, but particularly in the field of mathematics.[2] At age 14, he wrote his first scientific paper on the topic of ellipses with plurality of foci and it was presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh on his behalf, due to his young age.[3] Maxwell began attending the University of Edinburgh at the age of 16.[2] 

Maxwell continued through his years of academia at the University of Cambridge, Marischal College, and King’s College, making an impact in the areas of mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, electromagnetism, and many more.[3] One of Maxwell’s final positions was the first Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge University. Maxwell died in November 1879 at an early age of 48 from abdominal cancer, which was the same age and illness that took his mother 40 years prior.[4] Maxwell set the course for a deeper understanding of electromagnetism and his fundamental differential equations, known as the Maxwell Equations, have led to countless discoveries and breakthroughs in the field of physics.

Science

Maxwell was most famous for his work in the field of electromagnetism. His first work on electromagnetism was a paper named “On Faraday’s Lines of Force,” which simplified the model  used to describe the field produced by a magnet or electric charge. His simplification of the model led to reducing the problem to a set of 20 differential equations with 20 variables.[5]

Maxwell began to work on the propagation of electromagnetic fields and went on to show that the speed of propagation was approximately the speed of light, which revealed the connection between electromagnetism and light waves. This led to Maxwell publishing his paper on “A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field,” which concludes that magnetism and light are an affinity of the same source and that light is the result of a disturbance that is propagated through an electromagnetic field.[6]

The 20 equations that Maxwell derived were eventually simplified by Oliver Heaviside and reduced down to a set of 4 partial differential equations.[7] These 4 equations remain to be a heavily taught and researched topic throughout the entire field of physics and is the one of the major topics in every electromagnetism class.

Maxwell's Equations

Differential Form

1280px MaxwellsEquations.svg

This video is a great resource created by EarthPen, which is a YouTube channel that focuses on Science education. 

Faith

Maxwell was introduced to his faith at a young age and loved the Psalms and could even recite the entirety of Psalm 119 by the age of 8. It is even noted that he could give the chapter and verse of any quote from the entire collection of Psalms at this same age.[1]

In 1950, Maxwell began attending the University of Cambridge and this is when he really began working out his understanding of faith and scripture. He was already accomplished as a mathematician at this time and was invited to join the “Cambridge Apostles,” which is an elite secret society that intellectually debated topics among science and faith. This is where many of Maxwell’s essays on faith originated and helped him develop a greater understanding of his faith.[8] Many of his writings show a deep understanding of scripture and that he did not take his faith lightly, often wrestling with the topics of science and faith. 

Maxwell carried his faith with him throughout his career and proved to be a deep thinker in the realm of science, philosophy, and Christianity. During the final weeks of Maxwell’s life, he was regularly visited by a minister who noted this about Maxwell:[9]

… his illness drew out the whole heart and soul and spirit of the man: his firm and undoubting faith in the Incarnation and all its results; in the full sufficiency of the Atonement; in the work of the Holy Spirit. He had gauged and fathomed all the schemes and systems of philosophy, and had found them utterly empty and unsatisfying—”unworkable” was his own word about them—and he turned with simple faith to the Gospel of the Savior.”

Maxwell saw truth in scripture that he did not find anywhere else throughout his years of searching. He continued to press into his faith during his final weeks and found faith in Jesus, even in his suffering. He told one of his colleagues at Cambridge the following as he was approaching death:[9]

“I have been thinking how very gently I have always been dealt with. I have never had a violent shove all my life. The only desire which I can have is like David to serve my own generation by the will of God, and then fall asleep.”

Maxwell found reason for his calling to science and was happy to serve his generation, comparing his ability to serve to King David. Maxwell has already inspired so many scientists and will continue to inspire each generation with the work he accomplished in the fields of physics and mathematics.

References

[1]  Tolstoy, Ivan(1981). James Clerk Maxwell : a biography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 11. ISBN 0-226-80785-1. OCLC 8688302.

[2]  Mahon, Basil (2003). the Man Who Changed Everything – the life of James Clerk Maxwell. Wiley. ISBN 0-470-86171-1.

[3]  Harman, Peter M. (2004). “Maxwell, James”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press.

[4]  “The Cavendish Professorship of Physics”. University of Cambridge, Department of Physics. Archived from the original on 3 July 2013.

[5]  “1861: James Clerk Maxwell’s greatest year”. King’s College London. 18 April 2011. Archived from the original on 22 June 2013.

[6]  Maxwell, James Clerk (1865).” A dynamical theory of the electromagnetic field” (PDF)Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. 155: 459–512.

[7]  Nahin, Paul J. (13 November 2002). Oliver Heaviside: The Life, Work, and Times of an Electrical Genius of the Victorian Age. JHU Press. p. 109. ISBN 978-0-8018-6909-9.

[8]  Glazebrook, R.T. (1896). James Clerk Maxwell and Modern Physics. 811951455. OCLC 811951455.

[9]  “James Clerk Maxwell and the Christian Proposition”. MIT IAP Seminar. Archived from the original on 25 October 2014.

Publications

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