James Clerk Maxwell (Dictionary of World Biography: The 19th Century)
Article abstract: Both a theoretical and an experimental physicist as well as a notable mathematician, Maxwell founded modern field theory and statistical mechanics, mathematically describing interactions of electrical and magnetic fields that produce radiant energy, thus confirming the existence of electromagnetic waves that move at light speed. He also elaborated theories of the mechanics and kinetics of gases and a theory of Saturn’s rings.
James Clerk Maxwell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on June 13, 1831. An only child, he was reared by devout Episcopalian parents who, in a generally impoverished Scotland, enjoyed the comforts of Middlebie, a modest landed estate, and other small properties. Though rarely practiced, his father’s profession was law. Between his parents and grandparents, James was a descendant of middle-level government officials, landed developers of small mines and manufactories, and acquaintances of such famous Scotsmen as Sir Walter Scott and the great geologist John Hutton, although none of Maxwell’s immediate kin displayed unusual drive or distinction.
Maxwell’s boyhood was that of a happy, unusually observant, and well-loved child to whom were imparted clear religious and moral precepts that prevailed throughout his life. His health was sometimes delicate, and between his fourteenth and sixteenth years he learned that he was nearsighted and afflicted with a...
(The entire section is 1734 words.)
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Maxwell, James Clerk (1831-1879) (World of Earth Science)
James Clerk Maxwell was a physicist who introduced a new paradigm with his electromagnetic theory, influencing generations of researchers. Maxwell was without a doubt a child prodigy. At an early age, he solved geometric problems and wrote explanations that intrigued academics. Just as he considered how charged particles interact with their surrounding area, one might consider the interaction of the conditions of his inherent nature and the environment of his early childhood. Maxwell's life could make a good case study for the strength of the influences of heredity compared to environment as he had strong influences from both sources.
James Clerk Maxwell was a descendent of the Clerk and the Maxwell families, both with distinguished heritages. His father inherited a house in Edinburgh and land in the countryside. Maxwell was born in 1831 in Edinburgh while his parents were waiting for their country house to be built. They moved shortly after he was born. His father was a lawyer but was not very aggressive in pursuing new business. John Clerk Maxwell enjoyed studying science and building mechanical devices. As young as three years old, James was following his father insisting to know how everything worked. He was very close to his father all of his life. Maxwell's mother died suddenly when he was eight years old. For two years after his mother's death, he was educated by a series of tutors, but none were found suitable for Maxwell and his unique way of learning. His father and his aunt arranged for him to begin studies at the Edinburgh Academy. At the academy, Maxwell started to show his true capabilities and his classmates were less cruel.
In 1847, at age 16, Maxwell began his college studies at the University of Edinburgh. He spent three years there and during this time, he contributed two papers to the Edinburgh Royal Society. When he finished his studies at Edinburgh, his father sent him to Peterhouse, but shortly after beginning there, he transferred to Trinity where he believed he had a better chance for a fellowship. Maxwell studied at Trinity from early 1851 until he graduated in 1854. After graduation, he was awarded the fellowship. Maxwell then applied for a position at Marischal College to be close to his ailing father. However, his father did not live much longer. After his father's death in April 1855, he accepted the position at Marischal.
In 1858, he married the well-educated Katherine Dewar. Two years later, he had to leave Marischal, the victim of an institutional merger. He was immediately invited to teach at King's College, London. It was in London that he did his most prominent work. He remained there until he resigned his post (probably due to exhaustion) in the spring of 1865. He spent most of the next five years at his country home writing a book on his theory. He considered himself retired.
To stay involved in academia, Maxwell did consulting work for Cambridge. His encouraging of Cambridge to offer courses on heat and electromagnetism directly influenced the foundation of the Cavendish Laboratory. It was only natural that the first Cavendish professorship should be offered to him and he accepted. During his eight years as Cavendish professor, he worked to prepare for publication the experiment papers Henry Cavendish had written. It is well accepted that this self-imposed responsibility was influential in bringing due respect to Cavendish's work. In May 1879, as the school year wound down, it was obvious to many that Maxwell's health was beginning to fail. He tried to return to Cambridge in the autumn, but he could scarcely walk. Maxwell died the same year of abdominal cancer at the age of 48.
Maxwell's work leading to his kinetic theory of gases and his theory of electromagnetic fields was a logical advance from James Prescott Joule's work. Both researchers measured the velocity of gas molecules and both recognized that heat was not the fluid that it once was thought to be. The importance of Maxwell's work was the direction that it gave to new understanding. Joule showed only the scientific community what was possible to measure and what might be proven. Maxwell went forward with detailed mathematical models that left no holes unfilled, with one important exception. Maxwell used statistics to show the high probability that proposed laws would direct the behavior of matter. Discussing the probability of natural law took science away from determinism. This opened the door for the modern study of physics. Albert Einstein's theory of relativity and the recently nurtured chaos theory could not have been developed except for this new philosophical direction.
Maxwell began measuring the average velocity of a gas molecule with the objective to investigate whether the perceived random order of its movement could be predicted with some degree of accuracy. What he found was that the greater the velocity of the molecules, the greater the heat generated. There was a direct relationship between the amount of movement among the molecules and the amount of heat in a gas. In this experimental demonstration, heat was shown undeniably to be a property of particle movement and not a fluid flowing from one object to another. Furthermore, Maxwell's findings showed that the movement of particles could be controlled through increasing or reducing heat.
Maxwell understood Michael Faraday's theory of electric and magnetic fields. He worked to demonstrate what Faraday could not explain himself through complex calculations. Assuming that the space surrounding a charged particle contained a field of force, Maxwell created a mathematical model demonstrating all the possible phenomena of electric and magnetic fields. Through this model, Maxwell demonstrated that the electric and magnetic fields worked together. He coined the term "electromagnetic" to name this new breakthrough.
This discovery is important for chemistry because it ultimately led to the discovery of the electron. Joseph John Thomson discovered the electron when he was investigating the effects of the electromagnetic field on gases, applying the principles that Maxwell had established. Research on the effects of light on elements was furthered by Maxwell's work. His subsequent work on the velocity of the oscillation of electromagnetic fields demonstrated that light should be considered a form of electromagnetic radiation.
See also Atomic structure; Electromagnetic spectrum; Quantum electrodynamics (QED); Relativity theory