James Clerk Maxwell - The Great Unknown

Kevin Johnson


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James Clerk Maxwell was without doubt the most influential scientist of the nineteenth century. He changed almost every field he worked in from colour vision to his famous piece on electromagnetism and was voted, by physicists, the third greatest scientist of all time .
[The survey conducted by Physics World magazine in November 1999 (see [29]), asked the worlds 100 top physicists who they felt were the greatest scientists of all time.]

In his recent biography of Maxwell, Ivan Tolstoy said [10, p vii]:
For physicists the name of James Clerk Maxwell ranks next to Newton and Einstein. Yet among non-scientific people Maxwell's image is surprisingly faint.

These words may have been written nineteen years ago but they still remain true. Since undertaking this project I have come to realise that very few people have heard of James Clerk Maxwell. When announcing my project topic, I was greeted with comments such as 'so who's he then?' and 'isn't he an architect or something?'. Even when giving a talk on the subject to a class of mathematics honours students, I was astounded to find that few people knew of him.

I decided to do a survey and compare peoples knowledge on Maxwell to their knowledge on Einstein and Newton. Of 50 people surveyed only 2 people recognised Maxwell's name compared to 41 who recognised Einstein and 48 who recognised Newton. Not a single person could tell me why Maxwell was famous whereas 17 quoted the theory of relativity when asked about Einstein and 23 mentioned gravity with regards to Newton. Considering this survey was conducted in Scotland, Maxwell's home country, the statistics are quite incredible.

One story I came across was of a solicitor trying to return money to Maxwell that he had invested in a failed theatre company. Unaware that Maxwell had moved, the solicitor sent the monthly payments to King's College, Aberdeen, and each month it was returned as 'unknown at this address'. Finally the solicitor, who was becoming increasingly frustrated, went to the University and confronted them. They still claimed not to know Maxwell and the solicitor replied:
"How do you not know him - he is the most famous man ever to set his foot on Union Street."

This story exemplifies Maxwell. One of the greatest men of his era but completely anonymous to many.
So it seems the question that must be asked is 'why has nobody heard of him?' In what follows I hope to explain this whilst giving a fair description of what James Clerk Maxwell achieved. I shall begin by briefly considering his life.

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(Maxwell's Career)