The Man Who Changed Everything: The life of James Clerk Maxwell, by Basil Mahon, John Wiley, 2004, 248 ff.
Electricity and magnetism united
By Howard Jones
Maxwell's is not a name that is likely to be as familiar as those of other great scientists we learn about in school: Newton, Boyle, Hooke, Faraday, for example. This may be because following much of Maxwell's work requires university standard mathematics. However, in this fascinating biography that moves through the chapters of his life, this higher mathematics is mostly confined to the Notes.
Maxwell was born in Edinburgh in 1831 and died at Cambridge in 1879 at age only 48. His study of philosophy at Edinburgh University stood him in good stead for his scientific work. He developed a great interest in geology, inspired no doubt by the work of those pioneer Scottish geologists Hutton, Geikie and Lyell. From this interest, Maxwell was one of the first to study glaciers and he invented the seismograph for the measurement of earthquakes. His interest in the properties of polarised light was stimulated by a visit to the workshop of Edinburgh optician, William Nicol. James already had three years at Edinburgh University behind him when he went to Cambridge University at only 19. At Trinity College he came under the tutelage of the famous polymath, William Whewell, as Master of the College. Here, as well as his academic studies, he wrote satirical poetry, `much closer to W.S. Gilbert than Tom Lehrer', as Mahon puts it. This early background is engagingly told by Mahon.
But it is for his papers on electromagnetism that Maxwell is best know. The fact that charges and magnets act on one another through space gave rise to two theories - the `action-at-a-distance', like gravity, favoured by Newton, and the `lines-of-force' theory advocated by Faraday. Maxwell resolved this controversy in favour of the latter. He also worked on diffusion in gases and a mathematical study of the nature of Saturn's rings, so the electromagnetic equations are only the most significant of his studies in a number of different fields of science. He helped to found the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge and he was a friend of Faraday's and also of William Thomson (later, Lord Kelvin).
This is an interesting, informative and highly readable biography, though as it deals with some quite difficult scientific concepts, some background in maths and science is undoubtedly an advantage in getting the most out of it. There is perhaps too much room devoted to Maxwell's uninspiring poetry, but the book has a Chronology of Maxwell's life, a short Bibliography of related books, a couple of dozen pages of additional Notes, which include some of the more mathematically difficult stuff, and a good, detailed Index.
Dr Howard A. Jones is the author of The Thoughtful Guide to God (2006) and The Tao of Holism (2008), both published by O Books of Winchester, U.K.The Electric Life of Michael Faraday