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Regarded as one of the most influential physicists of all times, we all know Maxwell for his fundamental contributions to the scientific community. June 13, 2021, marks the 190th birth anniversary of this mastermind. So, to celebrate his birthday, this article aims to shed light on the legend’s life and some of his groundbreaking works.
Early life, education, and love for geometry
James Clerk Maxwell was born on 13 June 1831 in Edinburgh to an upper-middle-class family. Maxwell was a child prodigy. From childhood itself, he showed a sense of extreme curiosity. Unfortunately, he lost his mother at the young age of 8 years. Maxwell was not a very bright student, according to examination results. But, his interests ranged far beyond the school syllabus. Consequently, at the age of 14, Maxwell published his first scientific paper. This paper focuses on a generalized series of oval curves that we can trace with pins and thread by analogy with an ellipse.
His love and fascination with geometry continued throughout his career. It proved helpful in his future research works as well. At the age of 16, Maxwell joined Edinburgh University. Here, he studied for 3 years and published two more scientific papers. Later, he moved to Cambridge University. There he enrolled to study mathematics and consequently became a Trinity Fellow.
Awards and positions held
At the young age of 24 years, Maxwell shared the Smith’s Prize for theoretical physics and mathematics with Edward Routh. In 1856, he received Edinburgh’s highest prize in mathematics, the Straiton Gold Medal. In the same year, the University of Aberdeen appointed him to the Chair of Natural Philosophy.
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Aged 29 in 1860, he took a professorship at King’s College, London, where he stayed till 1865. However, in 1866, he took a break from all his positions and returned to his family. During this period, he wrote his groundbreaking Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. Maxwell became the Cavendish Professor at the University of Cambridge in 1871. He remained here until his death in 1879, aged just 48.
During his lifetime, Maxwell made some extraordinary discoveries. Maxwell contributed significantly to the field of colored photography. He formulated a brilliant analysis of the particle composition of Saturn’s rings.
Apart from this, Maxwell also established that each molecule of air at room temperature collides 8 billion times a second with other molecules on average. Though Maxwell studied many things, he is known best for his mathematical work on electromagnetism and gases’ behavior. His treatise on electricity and magnetism is fundamental in giving new dimensions to scientific thinking.
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The four Maxwell’s equations have been termed as the “Second great unification in Physics.” He established that light is an electromagnetic wave. He brought together light, electricity, and magnetism as different demonstrations of the same phenomenon. No doubt that Maxwell’s equations are quite hard to understand on the first go.
Although they aroused controversy when they were published for the first time in 1864, they are still among the most wonderful and fundamental keys to understanding the modern-day world. Moreover, Maxwell contributed significantly to developing the Maxwell Boltzmann distribution, which is highly useful in the Kinetic Theory of Gases.
Maxwell’s discoveries also helped lay the foundations of various fields like special relativity, quantum mechanics, and electrical engineering. Hence, Maxwell is rightly credited for being one of the most influential physicists ever.
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