Tuesday, September 18, 2007

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1679)

Sierra Club


The precise formulation of the time space laws of those fields was the work of Maxwell (1870s). Imagine his feelings when the differential equations he had formulated proved to him that the electromagnetic fields spread in the form of polarized waves and with the speed of light! To few men in the world has such an experience been vouchsafed. Only after Hertz (1888) had demonstrated experimentally the existence of Maxwell's electromagnetic waves did resistance to the new theory break down. And what was true for electrical action could not be denied for gravitation. Everywhere Newton's (instant) actions-at-a-distance gave way to fields spreading with finite velocity. At that thrilling moment he surely never guessed that the riddling nature of light, apparently so completely solved, would continue to baffle succeeding generations. - Albert Einstein

Mathematicians may flatter themselves that they possess new ideas which mere human language is as yet unable to express. Let them make the effort to express these ideas in appropriate words without the aid of symbols, and if they succeed they will not only lay us laymen under a lasting obligation, but, we venture to say, they will find themselves very much enlightened during the process, and will even be doubtful whether the ideas as expressed in symbols had ever quite found their way out of the equations into their minds. - James Clerk Maxwell


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James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) was a 19th century Scottish physicist who codified earlier work on electricity and magnetism by Michael Faraday, Andre Marie Ampere, and others into a linked set of twenty differential equations in quaternions, the same mathematical system used later by Einstein for the relativity theory. Both theories have many similarities and we can say that Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism was a precursor of the relativity. Heaviside simplified the theory down to four differential equations, known collectively as Maxwell's Laws or Maxwell's equations. Maxwell's Laws describe the nature of static and moving electric and magnetic charges, and the relationship between the two, namely electromagnetic induction. The equations allow for the existence of a self-propagating electromagnetic wave which has the same velocity as that of light, suggesting that light is in fact that electromagnetic wave. The validity of that suggestion was later demonstrated in experiments by Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, and was fundamental to the invention of radio, usually attributed to Guglielmo Marconi.

Maxwell also did basic work on Thermodynamics which led him to the well known thought experiment, Maxwell's demon. [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on James Clerk Maxwell.]

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