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A Tribute to a Scottish Physicist

by Mark A. Rice

Copyright 2017 Mark A. Rice

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Our society loves to idolize celebrities, actors, athletes, and the like. Typically, members of the scientific community, despite their significant contributions to our lives, do not garner the same level of attention or praise, although occasionally some do. If you were to ask the average person on the street to name a famous physicist, it is likely that they would answer by saying either Albert Einstein or Sir Isaac Newton. Both of these individuals have succeeded in advancing our understanding of our world in profound ways and became cultural icons in the process. Einstein’s E=mc2 and Newton’s falling apple are ubiquitous reminders of their efforts. Unfortunately, there are many other scientists who provide contributions that fundamentally enhance our lives but people never even know their names, let alone realize their efforts. One such scientist from Scotland developed a theory that led to technologies which are an integral and essential part of our daily lives, yet few know of his existence.

During the nineteenth century significant strides were made in the realm of physics. Among the many advancements were the new theories associated with electricity and magnetism. However, those theories were not comprehensive and there lacked a fundamental unified theory that described in total the phenomenon of electromagnetism. In science it is critical to determine fully the laws of nature which describe the “rules” of the universe. We need these rules because technology cannot advance without them. Think of what life would be like if, say, we had no traffic lights, which are rules for traffic movement. It would be total chaos. Technology cannot progress in chaos either. For instance, we take for granted that every time we cross a bridge it doesn’t collapse beneath us. What is forgotten to history is that during this period in time that occurred quite regularly. In addition to an unhealthy amount of corruption among bridge builders, there lacked scientific rules that defined the physics necessary to properly build structures such as bridges. Today such construction is rigidly controlled by engineering designers who have a firm grasp on what physical laws apply to this technology.

Electromagnetic theory was in a state of uncertainty and needed the aforementioned rules until a man named James Clerk Maxwell applied his amazing intellect to the problem at hand. Born in 1831 in Edinburgh, Scotland, Maxwell demonstrated early on that he had a voracious curiosity as well as an intense interest in science and mathematics. Known for saying "What's the go of it?" to express his innate desire to comprehend the many machines, etc. of the time, he fortunately continued his quest to understand throughout his all too short life. After finishing an undergraduate degree in mathematics from Trinity College, University of Cambridge, he went on to hold a number of professorship positions. His many contributions include those of the analysis of steam engine governors noteworthy as an early control theory effort, defining new equations for the kinetic theory of gases, derivation of theories for color vision, and the study of Saturn's rings.

In 1873 Maxwell published his seminal work “A Treatise On Electricity and Magnetism” which was the first comprehensive and definitive analysis of electromagnetic theory. Contained within were the genesis of equations that completely describe electromagnetism. In this work, Maxwell set forth about twenty equations, but in later years those were consolidated into a more compact form of four equations that are used today. Sadly, Maxwell died six years later in 1879 at age 48 having never lived to see the impact of his theories. No discussion about Maxwell would be complete without at least a cursory review of these four equations.

The first is named Faraday’s Law in honor of Michael Faraday, a bookbinder’s apprentice who by his own self-educated initiative ascended through the rigid caste system of English society to become the preeminent scientist of his time. Faraday found that whenever an electrical conductor is exposed to a changing magnetic field, it induces an electric field in the conductor. Modern power systems, which helped drive the industrial revolution and include equipment such as electric motors and transformers, are only possible due to the understanding of this equation.

The next two equations were originated by Carl Friedrich Gauss, a mathematician by background. In one we find that electric charge can exist independently as either positive or negative quantities. Conversely, the next one demonstrates that magnetic poles cannot exist independently; they always come in pairs; a north and south pole. Recall from grade school science class where if you cut a magnet in half, you don’t get a separate north and south pole. Rather, you get two magnets, each having their own two poles. Keep cutting those magnets in half and you continue to get paired poles.

The last and fourth is dually named the Ampere-Maxwell Law. Andre-Marie Ampere’s part of the equation had been known for some time. Simply put, if you have electric current (that is to say moving electrical charge) there is an associated magnetic field produced. However, there were indications that something else was occurring but no one had yet been able to define what was happening. This is where Maxwell really hit the proverbial grand slam. He took Ampere’s equation and added a term that made it a mirror image of Faraday’s law. Here, Maxwell said that a changing electric field could induce a magnetic field. At first this doesn’t sound very overwhelming, but it was. Maxwell took the modified Ampere equation, substituted it into Faraday’s equation and after some mathematical work, out came another equation: a wave equation. This meant that electromagnetism travelled in waves, a concept that changed the way we live. Every time you listen to the radio, watch TV, use a cell phone, navigate by GPS (thank Einstein as well for this one), look at a weather report derived from radar, travel by aircraft, and so on, you are relying directly on technologies that are only possible due to the knowledge of this theory. Our world as we know it couldn’t exist without these devices.

It didn’t stop there. Every basic wave equation has a constant that defines the speed at which the wave travels. When Maxwell did the math, the value for the wave speed constant wasn’t just any random number, it was the speed of light. Therefore, electromagnetic waves travelled at the speed of light, and light was an electromagnetic wave. This was a fundamental advancement of human understanding on the same plane as Einstein’s E=mc2 and Newton’s gravity. As a matter of fact, Einstein’s theories were rooted in Maxwell’s discovery and were not possible without the ground breaking work of that Scottish physicist.

As with any new theory, there were the skeptics and naysayers. After Maxwell’s death, a group of scientists took up the cause to prove the theory. Their unofficial name given them by historians was the “Maxwellians”. Among them was an eccentric, reclusive, autodidact, and former British Post Office employee named Oliver Heaviside. In addition to other advancements, Heaviside is responsible for condensing Maxwell’s equations into the four that we use today. Another important figure was the German scientist Heinrich Hertz who experimentally proved the existence of electromagnetic waves in 1889. Since then we have never looked back and continue to use these four wonderful equations to create and enhance our modern world.

The scientific community honors their great members by assigning their last names to items such as units of physical quantities. For instance, in the United States the unit for temperature is Fahrenheit named after the physicist Daniel Fahrenheit. Newton has the SI (International System of Units, or Système International d'Unités in French) unit for force. What is ironic is that his beloved country still uses the English unit of pounds rather than Newtons. Newtons are assigned to physics analysis rather than product weights, and even metric countries don’t use Newtons; they label products with mass, not weight. The notoriously arrogant Newton is probably rolling in his grave. Einstein has an atomic element named for him, Einsteinium, which is a non-naturally produced transuranic element with the atomic number 99 and chemical symbol Es. Ampere has been assigned the basic unit for electric current and is used universally. Hertz has his name attached to the frequency value of electrical quantities, formerly called cycles per second. Faraday’s honor was bestowed for units of electrical capacitance, although this is somewhat odd in that Faraday’s law does not concern itself with capacitance, rather inductance. (The unit for inductance was conferred to the American Joseph Henry.) Even the curmudgeon Heaviside has a mathematical function in his name and is used for electric circuit analysis.

In this respect, Maxwell is again slighted with near anonymity. The closest Maxwell came was in the 1930s with the unit of magnetic flux in the CGS (centimeter-gram-second) system. The CGS system is now basically defunct, with the SI system used for globally accepted units. (The equivalent SI unit is the Weber, named after Wilhelm Weber.) Gauss had units of magnetic flux density given to him in the CGS system. Even so, physics textbooks today still make reference to the Gauss (and Weber) unit, but not the Maxwell unit. The Gauss unit is equated to the newer SI unit of Tesla after Nikola Tesla. To a purist, this is really a snub. Tesla certainly made contributions to industry with his development of the electric motor. However, if you filter out the idolatry for Tesla, you find that after his initial successes, his later work was ineffectual and seriously misguided. Tesla basically refused to believe or adhere to any theoretical principles. He doubted Maxwell, considered Hertz’s experiments to be flawed (and apparently told him so), and thought Einstein’s E=mc2 was all wrong. Tesla was the one who was obviously wrong in these respects, and his later failures demonstrated his lack of deference and understanding for the rules. And his name is attached to a commonly used physics quantity while Maxwell’s great contributions are relegated to an antiquated unit system? The next time you are at the doctor and they brag about how their MRI equipment has a 3.5 Tesla capacity, please give some silent reverence to James Maxwell.

The silver lining here might come from an urban legend about Einstein. Supposedly, Herr Albert had two portraits on his office wall, one was of Isaac Newton and the other was of James Clerk Maxwell. If someone like Einstein thought highly enough of Maxwell to put his portrait in the office, then that is an indication of how great he was. Perhaps our society should do the same.


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