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Sunday, August 5, 2018

James Clerk Maxwell and the history of science


Photo source: Wikimedia Commons


James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) was Scottish physicist best known for the classical theory of electromagnetism. As a result, Maxwell helped establish the mathematical relationship between electricity and magnetism. Physicist Freeman Dyson says,


"Maxwell discovered his equations, which describe the behavior of electric and magnetic fields under the most general conditions, in the year 1861, and published a clear and definitive statement of them in 1865. This was the great event of nineteenth century physics, achieving for electricity and magnetism what Newton had achieved for gravitation two hundred years earlier." (Missed Opportunities lecture, 1971)


The rest of this post is a collection of quotes from Maxwell.


History of science


"It is of great advantage to the student of any subject to read the original memoirs on that subject, for science is always most completely assimilated when it is in the nascent state..." (A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, 1873)


"...the history of science shews that even during that phase of her progress in which she devotes herself to improving the accuracy of the numerical measurement of quantities with which she has long been familiar, she is preparing for the materials for the subjugation of new regions, which would have remained unknown if she had been contented with the rough methods of her early pioneers." (The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell, posthumous)




"The aim of an experiment of illustration is to throw light upon some scientific idea so that the student may be able to grasp it... The phenomenon which we wish to observe or to exhibit is brought into prominence, instead of being obscured and entangled among other phenomena, as it would when it occurs in the ordinary course of nature." (The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell, posthumous)




"Mathematicians may flatter themselves that they posses new ideas which mere human language is 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..." (Quoted in Thomson and Tait's Natural Philosophy, 1873)




"It has been asserted that metaphysical speculation is a thing of the past and that physical science has extirpated it. The discussion of the categories of existence, however, does not appear to be in danger of coming to an end in our time, and the exercise of speculation continues as fascinating to every fresh mind as it was in the days of Thales." (The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell, posthumous)