James Clerk Maxwell, creator of the theory of electromagnetism, born 181 years ago today

In News by DJ Pangburn / June 13, 2012

Remember Maxwell’s Demon, the thought experiment from high school science class? That little imaginary demon in a box that has the ability to keep hot and cold molecules evenly distributed between two portions of the box? The thought experiment that demonstrated the only way to avoid the entropy (heat loss) would be through supernatural magic? Well, that demon was created by physicist James Clerk Maxwell.

More importantly than his demon, however, Maxwell’s work in electromagnetic theory established that light, electricity and magnetism were part of a unified theory. Maxwell proved through mathematical equations that light and magnetic forces moved through space in the form of waves, which was a significant advancement in physics, establishing the framework for Einstein’s theories of relativity as well as the later development of quantum mechanics.

As Maxwell wrote:

“We have strong reason to conclude that light itself – including radiant heat and other radiation, if any – is an electromagnetic disturbance in the form of waves propagated through the electro-magnetic field according to electro-magnetic laws.”

These equations were published in 1873 as “A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism,” for those readers adept at mathematics, especially differential equations. (Here is Volume 1 of “A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism” on Google Books.)

Maxwell’s work in optics is also notable for creating the first permanent color photograph, which looks rather like crystalline bunny ears, but is actually a tartan ribbon tied in a knot.

The extent of Maxwell’s work and influence within science cannot be overstated and is too extensive to properly cover here, but for those interested in researching Maxwell’s theories, equations and contributions to human understanding, Project Gutenberg has a number of his works available to read online. Perfect for the latent auto-didact that exists in all of us.

It is a crime that he is not as well known to the public as Einstein or Isaac Newton, and also a shame that Google did not give Mr. Maxwell a nice Google Doodle.