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Frontiers Magazine

Momentum for Maxwell – gearing up for 2015

Howie Firth March 6, 2013 NEWS
Momentum for Maxwell

Momentum is growing for 2015, which has been designated as the International Year of Light. It is the 150th anniversary of the publication of one of the greatest scientific papers of all time – the paper in which James Clerk Maxwell showed that light consists of electromagnetic waves.

Maxwell’s work is the basis for all our telecommunications of today. His paper predicted the existence of radio waves, which were found eight years after his death by Heinrich Hertz in Germany.

That discovery alone marks Maxwell out as one of the greatest scientists of all time, but there were numerous others. He produced the world’s first colour photograph. He laid the foundations for the theory of gases, and took the first steps in information theory and cybernetics. He also showed mathematically that the rings of Saturn must consist of fragments of rock, held together by gravitational attraction.

Einstein regarded Maxwell as one of his four great predecessors in physics, the others being Newton, Galileo and Faraday. Einstein built on Maxwell’s work, revising Newton’s theories of space, time and gravity to fit the new picture that Maxwell had developed. “One scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell,” he said. Today there is a growing consensus amongst physicists that amongst all the great names and achievements, the top three are Newton, Einstein and Maxwell.

The American physicist Richard Feynman, one of the great figures of 20th-century physics, summed it up.

From a long view of the history of mankind – seen from, say, ten thousand years from now – there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the nineteenth century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics.”

But remarkably, the scale of his achievements is not well known in the country of his birth. If Einstein had been born in Scotland, it is likely that the world would have been told about it many times over. The name Maxwell to many Scots is associated first and foremost with a publisher – yet James Clerk Maxwell is to science in Scotland what Robert Burns is to poetry; as much a part of the soul of Scotland as the sound of the pipes over the hills or the fiddle music for the dancers. He is also as a man – warm-hearted, modest, good-humoured – a model for anyone to highlight.

So the task of raising awareness of Maxwell and 2015 is developing over several fronts in parallel. The leading scientific bodies of Scotland and of the UK are working together to press the case at the highest level, and in support of them a movement is growing for the people of Scotland as a whole to play their part too in the rediscovery of a remarkable and inspiring man.

Maxwell loved music and dance and poetry – indeed he wrote many poems of his own, sometimes reflective, often happy. He also wrote songs and would accompany himself on the guitar. It may be that a musical strain was inherited from his great-great-grandfather, Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, the famous Scottish composer, who studied the violin in Rome under Corelli.

So support for Maxwell and 2015 is also coming from musicians, dancers and writers. A song, James Clerk Maxwell, has been recorded on CD by Andy Munro, usually known as his alter ego, the children’s entertainer Mr Boom and a skilled musician in his own right, and accompanied here by his daughter Flora, who is also a singer.

Some of Maxwell’s own poems can be found on the site Meeting Maxwell, accompanied by photographs of the countryside in which he loved to walk.

Some of Maxwell’s poems have also been set to music, to appear on a future CD.

Maxwell lived at the house of Glenlair, near Corsock, in Dumfries and Galloway, and work is going on in the region to highlight him. He spent part of his working life at Glenlair, and loved the house and the estate. The house itself was largely destroyed by fire in 1929, although the oldest part was completely renovated in 1993 by the present owner Captain Duncan Ferguson, who has done a great deal for the house and for the memory of Maxwell. The story of the ongoing work at Glenlair can be found on the Maxwell at Glenlair Trust website.

Dumfries and Galloway Science Festival this year highlighted Maxwell in music and dance, with a James Clerk Maxwell Ceilidh in April in Easterbrook Hall in Dumfries.

Dancers at the Dumfries ceilidh were able to try out the new dance, Maxwell’s Waves, which has been created by the well-known Scottish dance teacher, Jessie Stuart of Dufftown. Music for this has been specially written by the Scottish accordionist and composer Freeland Barbour, with the tunes for the dance called Glenlair (Maxwell’s home in Galloway) and Maxwell’s Waves. This and other music will be featured here in Frontiers in the near future, and here now are some traditional dancers further north, at Dufftown in Moray, trying out the dance for the very first time, with some existing music, under Jessie Stuart’s direction.

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About The Author

Howie Firth

Dr Howie Firth is a writer and physicist from Orkney, with a deep interest in history and philosophy. He is director of Orkney International Science Festival.