Subscribe now

Article

More in this category:

Genius at Work – James Clerk Maxwell

December 2004 | by Peter Masters

The family house in Edinburgh was a very strange place. Almost everything in it was designed by ‘father’ – a mildly eccentric barrister with a passion for mechanical things and an amazingly inventive mind.

Not long after the birth of James Clerk Maxwellin 1831, his father took it into his head to design a new house to go with all his invented gadgets. So the family moved to a large and unusual manor in Galloway, and named it ‘Glenlair’.

The growing boy was only nine when his mother died of cancer, but his father resolved to make good the loss, and young James grew up to know the closest possible relationship with him.

Who was Clerk Maxwell?

The Biographical Dictionary of Scientists (London, 1984) provides the following succinct summary of Clerk Maxwell’s achievements: ‘Maxwell is generally considered to be the greatest theoretical physicist of the 1800s, as his forebear Faraday was the greatest experimental physicist.

‘His rigorous mathematical ability was combined with great insight to enable him to achieve brilliant syntheses of knowledge in the two most important areas of physics at that time.

‘In building on Faraday’s work to discover the electromagnetic nature of light, Maxwell not only explained electromagnetism but paved the way for the discovery and application of the whole spectrum of electromagnetic radiation that has characterised modern physics.

‘In developing the kinetic theory of gases, Maxwell gave the final proof that the nature of heat resides in the motion of molecules’.

Scientific paper at 13

Despite his later achievements, school-days were not an immediate success. Most of the time James doodled in his books, drawing elaborate mechanical models which baffled his friends.

But then, quite suddenly, he spurted ahead, capturing all the prizes at his school, the Edinburgh Academy, and astonishing everyone.

Clerk Maxwell was only thirteen when his first scientific paper was published by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, describing the method he had devised for constructing perfect oval curves.

He received detailed religious instruction in both the Scottish Presbyterian and Anglican churches. But the budding scientist’s religion was mechanical and lifeless until – as a student at Cambridge – he personally grasped the teaching of the Bible.

This began when a strong consciousness of sin made him seek God’s forgiveness. He became deeply concerned about his pride, self-seeking, envy, and secretly-held hostilities, as well as about outwardly sinful acts.

Surrendered heart

But he earnestly believed that Christ’s atoning death on the cross enabled God to blot out all his sin and worthlessness. He surrendered his heart to Christ, saying that life was nothing without his Saviour.

A student friend at Cambridge recorded that Clerk Maxwell never missed Sunday worship and spent hours in the enjoyment of his Bible. For Clerk Maxwell life now became filled with joys far surpassing the recreational pleasures of college life.

While he was noted for his athletic ability (he was in the habit of double-somersaulting every morning into the river) he was even more noted for his great warmth and sure character. Those who met him in his rooms to talk over some personal problem would invariably find themselves guided to the Bible which always lay on the table.

A fellow student (later Master of the College) remembered him in these words: ‘When I came up to Trinity, Maxwell was just beginning his second year. His position among us was unique. He was the one acknowledged man of genius among the undergraduates’. Original experimental work of the most striking nature poured out of him.

Saturn’s rings

Throughout his student years, he kept up a flow of daily letters to his father, now slowly dying. These letters showed him to be a model of respectful tact and earnestness in giving counsel and comfort from the Bible.

He also read volumes of theology, furnishing his mind from the works of such great spiritual writers as John Owen and Jonathan Edwards. These were Clerk Maxwell’s favourite authors and he had an intimate knowledge of their works. As J. C. Crowther wrote, ‘His continuously active cultivation of religion, like Faraday’s, had a very important relation to the course of his intellectual life’.

At twenty-five Maxwell had to give up the life of a Cambridge don and move to be nearer his ailing father. He was appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy at Aberdeen, and soon afterwards published his acclaimed work on Saturn’s Rings.

While at Aberdeen, Maxwell spent much of his time engrossed in experimental work at Glenlair, where visitors would find themselves impressed not only by his laboratory, but by the morning household prayer meetings – at which the eminent young professor would lead his wife, servants and guests in fervent praise. ‘Most impressive’, wrote a visiting London physicist, ‘and so full of meaning’.

Colour photography

Clerk Maxwell believed that God had endowed human beings with the power to investigate his handiwork, and harness the power of this created world. Indeed, this was his motivation for experimental research.

At this time Max-well’s fertile imagination was extending Faraday’s ground-breaking work on electricity. It was his brilliantly intuitive thinking about electrical currents and the speed of light that led to Hertz’s discovery of radio waves.

The whole basis of colour photography springs almost entirely from work that Clerk Maxwell carried out soon after his next move – to London, where he became Professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy at King’s College.

It was Maxwell who first explained how the addition and subtraction of primary colours produces all other colours. In 1861 he successfully produced the first colour picture using a three-colour process.

Clerk Maxwell’s formulae for calculating various properties of gases remain fundamental to modern physics, and final-year university students still grapple with the advanced concepts laid down by this remarkable, innovating mind.

Evolution dismissed

The greatest period of Clerk Maxwell’s scientific life began when he was persuaded to move back to Cambridge as the first Professor of Experimental Physics, and there he founded the famous Cavendish Laboratory.

The Cambridge academic circle quickly developed a deep and warm regard for the quiet black-bearded professor. He rarely laughed, but the twinkle was seldom out of his eye and he was devoid of any trace of pomposity.

For light relief he would write satirical verses, some of them lampooning the theory of evolution. More seriously, he published an acclaimed mathematical refutation of the ‘nebular hypothesis’ of Laplace, and dismissed with great effect the evolutionary arguments of the pro-Darwin writer Herbert Spencer.

Clerk Maxwell’s predictions about the theory of evolution have been exactly fulfilled. Writing to an English bishop he expressed sorrow that ‘conjectural scientific hypotheses’ should be ‘fastened to the text in Genesis’.He foresaw that an increasingly discredited theory of organic evolution would survive only because it is needed to bolster unbelief in God.

Un-mathematical wife

The finest source of information about Clerk Maxwell’s spiritual life is found in letters written to his ‘strictly un-mathematical’ wife. Sometimes he would relate the events of Sunday. ‘I have just come from hearing Mr Baptist Noel. The church was full to standing and the whole service was as plain as large print. The exposition was the Parable of the Talents and the sermon was on John 3:16’.

Frequently he muses on walking closely with God in a real experience of his presence. ‘I can always have you with me in my mind – why should we not have our Lord always in our minds for we have his life, character and mind far more clearly described than we can know anyone here?’

In a time of trial he wrote: ‘May the Lord preserve you from all the evil that assaults you, to work out his own purposes … Think what God has decided to do to all those who submit themselves to his righteousness and are willing to receive his gift…

‘Let us begin by taking no thought about worldly cares and setting our minds on the righteousness of God and his kingdom – and then we shall have far clearer views about the worldly cares themselves, and we shall be enabled to fight them under him who has overcome the world’.

Simple Christian faith

Clerk Maxwell died of cancer at the young age of forty-eight, leaving behind an unsurpassed contribution to physics and mathematics. Six years previously he had published his Treatise on electricity and magnetism, presenting a comprehensive theoretical and mathematical framework for the understanding of the electromagnetic field, energy and light.

Albert Einstein described this accomplishment as ‘the most profound and most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton’.

Such was the quality of Clerk Maxwell’s life and the reality of his walk with God, that Nature commented in an obituary: ‘His simple Christian faith gave him a peace too deep to be ruffled by bodily pain or external circumstances’. The ‘quiet genius’ had travelled on – to the place he had looked forward to above all others.

Adapted from Men of Purpose by Dr Peter Masters (Wakeman, ISBN 1-870855-41-8).

Tags:
Historical