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on 10 July 2011
I really enjoyed reading this book which covers the life of James Clerk Maxwell, the man famous for his equations that tied together electricity and magnetism to create formulae for electro-magnetic radiation including light. The book covered his life and his science and made me aware of just how much more he had contributed in addition to these famous equations. As it goes through his life it gives you enough to understand what he did, where he did it, and with who etc.. And it's a nice length too.

But a few disappointments. Firstly there was some maths in there, but not enough to really understand (unless I suspect you had already done it at University). So we are introduced for example to curl. The author makes a valiant attempt to describe what this means, but for me ultimately he fails -- there just isn't quite enough to "get it". And even with repeated recourse to Wiki, I'm still not sure I've quite got it. So either more maths and diagrams or less.

Secondly there is nothing bad said about him. I could just about live with this until I read the authors comments about his wife. There, despite the fact that everyone seems not to have liked her, the author refrains from that conclusion, preferring to question the reliability of the sources of criticism. So I have to conclude that Dr Mahon is rather biased and blind to any faults Maxwell may have had. In the Authors mind it seems Maxwell can do no wrong.

Thirdly most of the notes should have been in the text. All were interesting so no need to relegate them to the end

And lastly I do wish he referred to Maxwell and not to James. I've just read a biography of Einstein and I can't imagine anyone referring to Albert all the way through. So I found "James this" and "James that" way to informal, and rather irritating -- but then that is a personal preference.
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on 18 September 2012
Very good and detailed information about the life of the scientist James C Maxwell since he was born until he died . The book also describes the discoveries he made about electricity and electromagnetism ,and the postulation of its mathematical equations.
Also narrates how he found out his famous equation which correlates the speed of light with the velocity of electromagnetic waves . Einstein was also inspired in this equation to postulate the theory of relativity and his famous equation correlating mass and energy with the speed of light .
This book must be read by anyone interested in the history and fundamentals of electricity and electromagnetism .
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on 6 June 2007
This is an excellent book, well-written, interesting and comprehensive. For many years I have wondered why Maxwell is not ranked along with Einstein and Newton and this book reinforced that opinion. I find historical biographies like this by far the best way to get a good understanding of where we are now and why - much better than the patronising popular science books attempting to convert maths into English. When you see, as this book shows you, the reasons why people like Maxwell were motivated, you can really begin to relate to significance of their work without needing to fully understand the detailed science behind it. Highly recommended.
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on 19 July 2010
James Clerk Maxwell is one of the greatest scientists that has ever lived and this book very simply explains why. Basil Mahon has written a biography which covers much of the brilliant thinking of Maxwell and does so in a way that is approachable for the everyday reader. Maxwell's life story and theories are put into historical context and the importance of Maxwell's discoveries are clearly shown. Perhaps because Maxwell was such a decent Christian man and not mired in rivalries or controversies the book is no thriller. However if you want to understand the life and impact of this amazing Scot then this is the book to read.
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on 16 January 2008
Probably because he was a more boring person than ill tempered Newton and pacifist Einstein few people know James Clerk Maxwell, but still he completes the threesome of greatest scientists ever for his theory that unified electricity and magnetism into one series of laws, for his contributions to thermodynamics and a host of other things.

No juicy fights then, nor political confrontations, which should not discredit this book. It's just that its subject, however important, is not the most exciting man ever to roam the realm of science. This book matches Maxwell in decency and thoughtfulness.
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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
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on 5 August 2012
The Man who Changed Everything by Basil Mahon is a wonderful book which outlines not only Maxwell's scientific achievements but his humble inspirational life. As an aspiring physics University student, this is the first book I've read on Maxwell, before finishing it my knowledge of Maxwell was extremely limited.

James Clerk Maxwell was born in Scotland, as a child he was laughed at in school for wearing homemade clothes, which gave him the name 'Daftie'. Maxwell was known to have a funny, humble, charitable and loving personality to all those he met.

Maxwell wrote his first paper when he was 14 on ovals and curves which was last discussed by Descartes! He would later develop the ideas for statistical analysis (Maxwell-Boltzman Distribution), thought experiments (Maxwell's Demon), thermodynamics, optics (how the eye perceives images), perception of colour (the first colour photograph), the basis for control theory, information theory, and so much more! Maxwell is probably the most underrated scientist ever, his contributions to mankind is unbelievable.

Those that have heard of Maxwell know him for 'Maxwell's Equations' where he unified electricity and magnetism into one entity and which is now known to be a fundamental force of the universe. Maxwell was then able to theoretically calculate the speed of light perfectly! I won't even try to explain how much electricity has helped society and mankind, but just so you know it's all thanks to Maxwell.

Maxwell's equations consist of 4 equations: 1. Guass' Law of Electric fields, 2. Guass' Law of Magnetic fields, 3. Faraday's Law and 4. The Ampere-Maxwell Law. Now wait a minute! Maxwell seems to have barely done anything, just changed a bit of Ampere's law and taken all the credit for the whole electromagnetic theory. That's what I first thought! Maxwell has done a lot more than that, a conceptual basis for electromagnetism to understand why the laws worked, to link electricity and much more. He developed the idea of flux, fields through his seemingly strange analogy of 'rotating wheels and idle wheels' (remember the electron wasn't discovered until 30 years later or so!). A important point to also mention is that Maxwell was then able to establish light as electromagnetic waves! And calculate its velocity!

Maxwell influenced many scientists during his lifetime but also after, Boltzman, Einstein, Feyman, and much more! I don't know how much more I can stress Maxwell's achievements, it is truly sad that he is not given the real credit he deserves, as people nowadays would of heard of Newton and Einstein but Maxwell is definitely up there in their league.

I learnt so much from reading Mahon's book, although it is does get rather dry when the author tries to explain scientific concepts and such. It is also quite difficult to undersand certain mathematical functions such as curl, div, without any further maths knowledge. Maxwell's concept of his 'rotating wheels and idle wheels' was rather difficult to take in but overall the book is relatively okay to read, certainly fun and educating! Recommended for scientists but also those who just have a general interest! Much can be learnt about Maxwell's life just from this short book.

Don't forget that without Maxwell's equations you wouldn't have the computer to even read this review!
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on 24 August 2011
This book describes the life & achievements of James Clerk Maxwell, the man who first identified the relationship between electricity, magnetism & light. He was the first to demonstrate mathematically that electricity, magnetism and light are all manifestations of the same phenomenon; the electromagnetic field - with electromagnetic waves. This is regarded by many as one of the greatest scientific achievements of all time; ranking him with Newton, Faraday & Einstein.

Mahon's book is extremely well written and is at times hard to put down; this despite his explanations of some very sophisticated physics & mathematics, which he achieves with clarity. Maxwell's life, personality, relationships and achievements are described chronologically; schooling in Scotland, university education in Edinburgh & Cambridge and academic posts beginning and ending at Cambridge. He was a lifelong friend of both William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) and P G Tait; the three regularly exchanging ideas. Maxwell was a gentle caring and religious man with a mischievous though never cruel sense of humour. Although the author devotes a good deal of his text to describing these endearing aspects of Maxwell's life, it is his enormous scientific and engineering achievements which shine through.

In addition to his achievements in electromagnetism, Maxwell proposed the first ever statistical law in physics; that is the Maxwell distribution of molecular velocities, the first & perhaps the most inspired step towards the development of statistical thermodynamics and the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution or molecular energies, which is so important in understanding for example the relationship between temperature and vapour pressure. This alone, without his electromagnetic theory, would be sufficient to mark him as `an all time great' of science. However, there was much more!

James also determined the conditions under which Saturn's rings would be stable which won him Cambridge's Adams Prize and the accolade from the Astronomer Royal that his work was one of the most remarkable applications of mathematics to physics that he had ever seen.

Maxwell demonstrated the principle by which we see colours and took the world's first colour photograph; he wrote a paper which became the basis of modern control theory; he used polarized light to reveal strain patterns in structure and invented a powerful graphical method for calculating the forces in any framework, techniques which became standard engineering practice.

Perhaps most importantly, with the development of his theories on for example electromagnetic fields, perception of colour and statistical mechanics, Maxwell started a revolution in the way physicists look at the world. He began to think that the objects and forces that we see are only our limited perception of an underlying truth that we cannot understand but can describe mathematically.

Our author claims that `It is sometimes said, with no more than slight overstatement that if you trace every line of modern physical research to its starting point you come back to Maxwell'. CA Coulson said of Maxwell, that `there is scarcely a single topic that he touched upon which he did not change almost beyond recognition.' Albert Einstein said `one scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell'.

James Clerk Maxwell really was `The man who changed everything'; at least in physics. Mahon's book is first rate as a biography, as a history of science and as a compelling read: five stars of course.
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on 15 July 2013
James Clerk Maxwell should rank with Charles Darwen, Isaac Newton and slightly above Einstein in the ratings of scientists. Before he came along no one had suspected the existence of radio waves. By using mathematical calculation he predicted the existence of electromagnetic waves. Other scientists subsequently confirmed his prediction and generated and detected them, laying the foundations of wireless, radar, TV, satellite communication and radioastronomy . He also identified light as a form of electromagnetic waves. He co-formulated the kinetic theory of gases, laid the foundations of colour photography in his studies of colour vision and made fundamental contributions to control theory. Why isn't he the most famous physicist that ever lived? Far from that, if onee asked a few people in the street most would never even have heard his name. There's something wrong here. Mahons book is a good readable account of his life and work, and it makes a good fist of giving lucid explanations of the science right up to the famous (in scientific circles) Maxwell Equations of electromagnetism.
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on 5 November 2014
One evening our lovely host berated the Scots as never having contributed a thing to the world on the basis that bagpipes are Greek and tartan of very dodgy provenance. Ignoring relatively easy wins of Alexander Graham Bell, John Logie Baird, Lord Kelvin, David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Carlisle, Joseph Lister, Robert and Robert Louis Stevenson, I went for James Maxwell Clerk. Not because he's Scottish in fact but because he was UNBELIEVABLY BRILLIANT.

Like so many, I'm not sure he had ever heard of him. Basil Mahon seems to love JCM - this biography is an unbroken eulogy but perhaps justifiably so. Beautiful mind, beautiful soul. Einstein thought he was a GENIUS. I've read Einstein's short treatise on relativity for thick people and am convinced HE was either mad or a GENIUS.... This book is a great introduction to a man who contributed, in such a short life, so much, with such modesty. Should be a standard text in school, educating children what it is, to think.
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