James Clerk Maxwell and the Electromagnetic Fields

James Clerk Maxwell
(1831 – 1879)

On June 13, 1831, Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell was born. His most prominent achievement was formulating a set of equations that united previously unrelated observations, experiments, and equations of electricity, magnetism, and optics into a consistent theory. According to his theory he has demonstrated that electricity, magnetism and light are all manifestations of the same phenomenon, namely the electromagnetic field. This has been called the “second great unification in physics”, after the first one realised by Isaac Newton.

James Clerk Maxwell mostly received education in the field of religion as a child and continued his academic career at the Edinburgh Academy. In 1847, he enrolled at the University of Edinburgh, studying philosophy. During these years, Maxwell was able to publish his first works and later enrolled at the Trinity College, where he glanced with his knowledge in mathematics and physics.

In the mid 1850’s, Maxwell published On Faraday’s Lines of Force, laying the foundations for his masterpiece, published in his later life. Just a few years later, he published On the Stability of Saturn’s Rings coming to the conclusion that Saturn’s rings could not be liquid or gaseous and in order to be stable they had to be made of solid fragments. One of Maxwell’s most important research fields became kinetic theory, and he made significant contributions in concerns of several important experiments and tests he performed. The Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution also resulted from his research on kinetic theory. It described the percentage of molecules moving at a certain temperature with a certain speed and depicted an important part of thermodynamics.

Despite the fact, that James Clerk Maxwell made many influential publications on a variety of scientific fields, his most important research area was the electricity. His greatest results were the extension of Michael Faraday’s and André-Marie Ampère’s researches on magnetism and electricity. He combined their numerous differential equations to very few ones making history as the Maxwell Equations. They were published in 1864 at the Royal Society, of which Maxwell has been a fellow member for several years, and they describe the behavior of magnetic and electric fields and their interaction with matter. Also, the brilliant physicist predicted waves of swinging electric and magnetic fields, moving through a vacuum. His predictions were later verified by Heinrich Hertz and depicted the foundations of radio technology.

Maxwell published a textbook on thermodynamics and further works on bodies and their movements. To his last scientific contributions belonged the evaluation of Henry Cavendish’s works. Cavendish was an influential chemist and physicist of the 18th century. Maxwell found out, that Cavendish already researched on the composition of water and the density of planet Earth.

Maxwell is today seen as the physicist of the 19th century with the greatest influence on the science of the 20th century. He is known to have built bridges between mathematics and physics and his theories were soon after his death accepted globally.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a video lecture on Electromagnetic Waves and Maxwell’s Equation by Professor Walter Lewin.

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