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Accomplishments of James Clerk Maxwell

Meghna Wani Mar 12, 2019
James Clerk Maxwell was voted the third-greatest physicist of all times behind Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. This accomplishment of his is a testimony of his mastery over physics. ScienceStruck will tell you more about the accomplishments of James Clerk Maxwell.

Words of Praise by Einstein, for Maxwell's Work

"Most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton."
James Clerk Maxwell (1831 - 1879), was a Scottish scientist who belonged to the 19th century, but influenced 20th century physics by his various contributions. His experiments and findings laid the foundation of quantum physics, as well as Einstein's theory of relativity.
Even at an early age, Maxwell showed fascination and curiosity for things around him. At the age of 2, he would try to observe the effect of sunlight on the mirror. His parents soon realized that their son was gifted with super-intelligence and an amazing memory. But as he grew up, he was tormented by his classmates for his eccentric behavior and stuttering.
Scientists are usually perceived as uninteresting people, who do not have creative colors. But with Maxwell, things were different! He used to write poetry, which described scientific processes and mathematical calculations in a poetic and lyrical way. Let us see an example of Maxwell's Poetry.
"An inextensible heavy chain
Lies in a smooth horizontal plane,
An impulsive force is applied at A,
Required the initial motion of K.
Let ds be the infinitesimal link,
Of which for the present we've only to think;
Let T be the tension and T+dT
The same for the end that is nearest to B.
Let a be put, by a common convention,
For the angle at M'twixt OX and the tension"

Achievements of James Clerk Maxwell

Formulated the Fundamental Laws of Electricity and Magnetism

Now known as Maxwell's Equations, they are the foundation of electromagnetic theory. These equations put forth Michael Faraday's theories of electricity in a mathematical form. He proved that, with a few simple mathematical equations, the behavior of electric and magnetic field and their interrelated nature, an electromagnetic field could be expressed.
Initially, Maxwell came up with 20 equations, but those were too cryptic, and even his colleagues could not decipher them. His equations were way ahead of his time. It took at least a decade for the importance of the equations to be understood.
Albert Einstein once said, "The special theory of relativity owes its origins to Maxwell's equations of the electromagnetic field."

Later, the equations of Maxwell were distilled down to four differential equations, now known as Maxwell's Equations.
The equations describe the nature of static and moving electric charge, and the relationship that exists between. Maxwell, through his equations, had predicted that radio, TV waves, and light waves were electromagnetic in nature. Twenty years later Hertz proved him correct. These equations helped in Theory of Relativity and the invention of Radio by Macroni.
Many devices that we use today use electromagnetic waves to function; e.g. X-rays, cell phones, microwave ovens, wireless Internet, etc. If it was not for Maxwell, we wouldn't have been enjoying these useful devices today.

Produced the First Colored Photograph

Maxwell was the genius who said that if three black and white photographs of the same scene were taken through red, green, and blue filters, and transparent prints of the scene were projected on a screen from three different projectors with each color filter, then when the images superimpose, to the human eye, the image would appear completely colored.
He conducted the world's first demonstration of color photography in 1861, by clicking the photograph of a ribbon three times through red, blue, and green filters. But the photographic plates were insensitive to red and green, and therefore could not capture the images properly.
The experiment for first colored photograph was not satisfactory. Thus, it can be concluded that it was not his experiment or idea that was faulty, but the technology of optics at that time had not caught up with his speed of thinking.
By the experiment, Maxwell did not want to show the world the method of color photography, but he wanted to demonstrate that the correct additive primary colors were red, green, and blue, and not red, yellow, and blue, as were believed to be in that era.

Investigated the Kinetic Theory of Gases

The investigations on kinetic theory of gases was taken up by physicists like Daniel Bernoulli, James Joule, and Rudolf Clausius, but only caught momentum when Maxwell joined hands with them as an experimenter and a mathematician. While working on the theory, he formulated the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution, by applying probability and statistics.
This Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution forms the basis of the kinetic theory of gases, and is a combined, improved, and simplified version of all the previous laws of thermodynamics. He not only improved the laws, but also explained the previous laws and experiments in a better and more logical way, than it was ever done previously.
Due to the fact that he had used statistics in his findings, the idea of 'probability' got merged into physics, and this was also one of his major contributions to the science of physics. Thus, a new field of Statistical Thermodynamics came into existence.

Explained the Stability of Saturn's Rings

Before Maxwell had put forth his mathematical analysis and assumptions of the rings that surround the planet Saturn, it was believed that the rings were solid and rotated around the planet.
Maxwell, in 1870, in his work On the Stability of the Motion of Saturn's Rings, presented that the rings of Saturn must be made up of small particles to sustain rotation and be stable, and if solid, would become unstable and break apart due to continuous rotation.
Maxwell developed this model and postulated it mathematically, using the potential theory, Taylor's theorem, and Fourier Analysis. His theory was proven correct as the technology advanced and spectroscopic studies came into the picture. Once again he had demonstrated his gift of high intellect, way before others could even think or visualize it.

Refuted Laplace's Hypothesis, Mathematically!

Laplace, a French atheist put forth a nebular hypothesis in which he had suggested that our solar system started as a big cloud of gas. This gas, over a span of millions of years, contracted and broke up to produce planets. Laplace thus hypothesized the irrelevance of a creator. This theory was embraced actively by the opponents of Christianity.
Maxwell strongly refuted Laplace's hypothesis, by saying that the beliefs and speculations involved in the hypothesis were not backed by scientific evidence, and were only based on biased self-perspective towards an idea. Maxwell also proved mathematically, that such a phenomenon of a cloud contracting into a planet could not occur.
He found two major flaws in Laplace's hypothesis. First was, that material can never condense into planets, and second was, there would be no way to slow down the rapidly-spinning mass in the center, to form our present slowly-rotating Sun. And each and every word of his was backed by strong mathematical calculations. Thus Laplace's theory was discarded.
There was a link between Laplace's nebular hypothesis and Saturn's rings; Laplace proposed that the rotating rings of Saturn were a proof of the nebular hypothesis, to which Maxwell again refuted by saying that if the spinning ring is made up of gases and is stable, gases can never coalesce. If stability is proved then coalescence must be discarded.
In summation, it can be said that Maxwell's thinking, findings, and accomplishments, were very much ahead of his time. He was a true stalwart, and to honor his name, a mountain on the planet Venus has been named after him - 'The Maxwell Mountain', as well as a gap in the rings of Saturn has been named the 'Maxwell Gap'.