Astronomy

James Maxwell and the Nature of Light

As a boy, he made his own toys before he was eight. He rotated a stroboscope in front of a mirror and enjoyed the simulated moving picture. At 14, he wrote a paper on methods of constructing perfect oval curves. A professor had to read it at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, as a boy in a round jacket could not be allowed to mount the rostrum! He was James Clerk Maxwell, Scottish physicist and mathematician, regarded as one of the greatest scientists ever lived.

Maxwell was born in Edinburgh on November 13, 1831. The world celebrated the 175th anniversary of his birth in 2006 as ‘Maxwell year’ as a tribute to a man, who changed everything involving electricity and magnetism that we take for granted today.

The phenomena of light fascinated him most. His approach to understanding it was however different from that of Newton before him. Newton was obsessed with the problem of religion and god. he became interested in light because it is the principle of divinity. He was not to blame as the society in his days did not view science and religion as conflicting ideas. Maxwell’s approach was pragmatic; through he studied theology and wrote poetry.

As an outstanding mathematician and physicist, he gained a different view of reality. For him , energies reside in fields as well as bodies . According to Einstein, this change in the concept of reality is the most profound and the most fruitful that physics experienced since the time of Newton. The wave nature of light that Maxwell envisaged and his idea that light is but one from of the electromagnetic spectrum represents one of the greatest leaps ever achieved in human thought. Maxwell concluded that the speed of the electromagnetic waves was the same as that of light.

He expressed all fundamental laws of light, electricity and magnetism in a few mathematical equations, called Maxwell Field Equations. A book containing his three significant papers reflecting his research between 1864 and 1873 was published in the year 1873. An outstanding result was that anyone who read it was convinced that an oscillating electric charge could produce an electromagnetic field.

Light has an electric field and a magnetic field oscillating at right angles to each other. Richard Feynman hailed the discovery of the laws of electrodynamics as the most significant event of the 19th century seen in, say, 10,000 years from now.

Maxwell made it possible for everyone to think of waves in imaginary models to proceed with research in reality and showed different regions of the electromagnetic spectrum in a wide variety of applications, from communications to space exploration in the years that followed
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Maxwell died at the young age of 48 in 1879, before his theory could be proved in the field . That happened eight years later in 1887, when Heinrich Hertz (1857- 1894) experimentally confirmed the theory by producing radio waves . And the world was never the same again. In the words of Einstein, one scientific epoch ended and another began with Maxwell.

The idea that light is a form of electromagnetic energy and it can exert pressure while carrying momentum enabled Einstein to develop his theory of relativity.

Maxwell’s impact in seen in many other areas as well. His research on colors vision proved prophetic. He advocated the use of filters to photograph an object in red, green and blue and recombine the results to develop a colors image.

He redefined the nature of gases. His idea that Saturn’s rings are composed of different masses of matter was proved correct 100 years later by voyager spacecraft reaching the planet.

The tallest peak on the planet Venus, some 12,000 meters high, is named Maxwell Monte , the only feature on that planet named after a male! Maxwell’s ideas continue to electrify and magnetise the world we deal with every second.

Video Biography and Contributions of James Clerk Maxwell

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