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How Professor Maxwell Changed The World

From: Terry W. Colvin <fortean1.nul>
Date: Tue, 5 Apr 2011 11:41:33 +0700 (GMT+07:00)
Archived: Tue, 05 Apr 2011 07:54:17 -0500
Subject: How Professor Maxwell Changed The World

Source: The Economist


Apr 2nd 2011, 17:11

Physics Anniversaries
How Professor Maxwell Changed The World
by J.P.

To much fanfare, Italy celebrated 150 years since its
unification two weeks ago. Less exuberantly, America is
commemorating the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the civil
war, a failed attempt to undo its union. Amid this flurry of
historical fissions and fusions it is easy to overlook another,
arguably more significant unification set in motion in spring
1861. In March of that year James Clerk Maxwell, a Scottish
physicist (pictured above), published the first piece of a four-
part paper entitled "On physical lines of force". Sprinkled amid
the prose in the Philosophical Magazine were equations which
revealed electricity, magnetism and light to be different
manifestations of the same phenomenon.

By the mid-19th century scientists had a fair understanding of
each of the three components of electromagnetism, as the
phenomenon has come to be called. They knew, for instance, that
the distribution of electric charges was linked to the pattern
of electric fields and that magnetic poles cannot exist in
isolation, in other words that there were no single magnetic
charges. They also knew that a moving magnet generates an
electric current in a wire coil, as demonstrated by Michael
Faraday several decades earlier at the Royal Institution (a
short walk from The Economist's offices in London). However, no
one could explain precisely why that was.

Maxwell's aim was initially to forge a mathematical link between
electricity and magnetism that would capture these experimental
results. (The issue was a burning one for the Victorians who had
just been spectacularly stymied in their efforts to get the
trans-Atlantic telegraph connection to work. Understanding how
electricity and magnetism interacted, it was thought, would help
to overcome the problem of the delay and deterioration
experienced by the signal as it travelled along the underwater

He also realised that varying the strength of an electric field
would generate a changing magnetic field, even in empty space
with no moving electric charges to speak of. A changing magnetic
field, of course, gives rise to an electric field, as had been
established by Faraday. Might the two fields nudge each other
along in a self- perpetuating, wave-like manner? Maxwell's
calculations made it clear=E2=80=94they could. And the speed at which
such an electromagnetic wave would propagate through a medium
was inherently linked to the medium's electrical and magnetic
properties. When Maxwell plugged the relevant values, which had
been obtained recently by experi- menters in Germany, into his
equations, out popped Fizeau's figure for the speed of light.
Convinced that this was no accident, Maxwell went on to suggest
that light is, in fact, an electromagnetic wave. Physics had got
its first unified theory.

2011 is awash with anniversaries of notable events from the
annals of the physical sciences. Chemists will be celebrating
350 years since the publication of Robert Boyle's "Sceptical
Chymist", a tract which marked the birth of their science, at
least in its modern guise. One hundred years ago in April,
meanwhile, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, a Dutch physicist, discovered
that some materials are superconductors=E2=80=94 as they are cooled
towards absolute zero they allow electric charge to flow with no
resistance. In May of the same year Ernest Rutherford, a New
Zealand-born British boffin, put forward (also in the
Philosophical Magazine) the familiar model of the atom as
composed of a dense nucleus orbited by tiny electrons. Although
physicists have since come up with more elaborate projections of
the subatomic reality, the Rutherford model is, unlike the
earlier plum-pudding version, basically right=E2=80=94which is why it
continues to be taught to school children the world over. And it
has been 30 years since Alan Guth, an American particle
physicist, published a paper suggesting that instants after the
Big Bang the universe underwent a phase of rapid expansion; the
inflationary theory has since become cosmological received
wisdom and forced astrophysicists to take particle physics

Worthy intellectual accomplishments, all. Yet they pale in
comparison with Maxwell's. This is not just because, unlike a
lot of subsequent theoretical advances, his insight has already
yielded a century's worth of tangible results, from radio to
mobile phones. (Only a century because it took scientists
several decades before they grasped the theory's full
significance and put it into practice.) Nor is it because he
championed the abstract idea of fields, a fecund notion that
underpins much of modern physics. No, Maxwell's greatness lies
elsewhere still. He showed that nature ought not to be taken at
face value, and that she can be cajoled into revealing her
hidden charms so long as the entreaties are whispered in
mathematical verse. In doing so he paved the way for the pursuit
of physicists' holy grail: the grand unified theory, a set of
equations which would explain all there is to know about
physical reality. As tends to be the case with grails, this one,
too, may prove unattainable. Unless there are inherent limits on
human understanding=E2=80=94itself an unfathomable premise=E2=80=94there
will always be more apparently disparate phenomena to explain at
one fell swoop.

Maxwell remains the great unsung hero of human progress, the
physicists' physicist whose name means little to those without a
scientific bent. His life's work, which also includes remarkable
contributions to thermodynamics (not to mention taking the
world's first colour photograph, also 150 years ago) is among
the most enduring scientific legacies of all time, on a par with
those of his more widely acclaimed peers, Isaac Newton and
Albert Einstein. It deserves to be trumpeted.

Terry W. Colvin
Ladphrao (Bangkok), Thailand
Pran Buri (Hua Hin), Thailand
[Terry's Fortean & "Work" itty-bitty site]

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