‘Scotland’s Einstein’ deserves to be honoured

The radio telescopes at the The Mullard Observatory, Cambridge. Picture: BBC Scotland

The radio telescopes at the The Mullard Observatory, Cambridge. Picture: BBC Scotland

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HEADS bowed, eyes fixed on their mobile phone screens, few people at the east end of George Street cast a glance at the bearded man sitting cross-legged on his plinth.

Yet without him they would just be gazing into the palm of their hands.

Interrupt them to ask if they know who the statue represents, and most would be forced to admit to not knowing him or even why they should.

“I don’t blame them,” says Professor Stewart. “James Clerk Maxwell seems to have slipped through the cracks of history. At least as far as the public’s concerned.

“His name is barely known to the public and yet he’s probably the finest scientist Scotland has ever produced.”

For although James Clerk Maxwell was known as “dafty” when he was at school in Edinburgh, he became, as Prof Stewart’s TV hour-long documentary will show tonight, the man who made the modern world.

It was his work 150 years ago which led to the invention of radio, television – and even mobile phones.

Maxwell’s research showed how light moved in waves, and he predicted there was more to the light spectrum than could be seen by the visible eye.

His work on electromagnetism proved the existence of infrared, ultraviolet, x-rays, gamma rays, radio waves and more – all of which fuels today’s technology.

His revolutionary equations made him Einstein’s pin-up, the inspiration of Hertz and Marconi, and more recently, Sir Peter Higgs.

“He caused a revolution in physics,” says Prof Stewart. “He gave us laws for one of the four fundamental forces of the universe.

“He used his genius across astronomy, physiology, colour, optics, thermodynamics, electricity and magnetism – he changed many of them beyond recognition.

“His equations were an astonishing piece of work, packed with radical ideas. He solved the mystery of what light was and he predicted the existence of these invisible fields which would directly affect our life.”

Born in India Street in 1831, the only child of Galloway landowners, Maxwell was always fascinated with how things worked, and by the age of 14 had produced a mathematical paper on geometric shapes which was read at the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

He went on to study at Edinburgh and Cambridge universities and when he was 25 – and a professor of physics in Aberdeen – he began to look at the composition of the rings of Saturn.

Scientists had never been able to explain what the rings were made of and how they stayed in place; Maxwell used pure maths to discount the ideas that they were solid or fluid and theorised they were made of small particles all orbiting the planet.

His theory was proved correct 130 years later when the Voyager probe sent back images of Saturn’s rings. In his honour the spaces between the rings are known as the Maxwell Gap.

“Maths is a powerful tool,” says Prof Stewart, a geologist. “Physicists use it to understand and predict the universe and Maxwell was a master of it.”

From that point Maxwell was regarded as one of the great theoretical physicists. His work on colour – his statue has him holding his colour wheel – eventually led to his producing the first colour photograph.

And then, of course, there was his research into electromagnetism. Prof Stewart says that Maxwell’s work is “difficult enough to grasp for a 21st-century scientist” so in the 19th century “it must have been mind-blowing”.

Although his equations were met with bewilderment at the time, decades later they were used by Einstein to create his own famous one, E=mc2. Indeed Einstein said his “special theory of relativity owes its origins to Maxwell’s equations of the electromagnetic field” and that “one scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell”.

Maxwell went on to become the first director of Cambridge’s world-renowned Cavendish lab but he was diagnosed with stomach cancer and died aged just 48.

Professor Stewart adds: “I can’t blame people for not knowing about James Clerk Maxwell – this is difficult stuff. But given the breadth of his discoveries it’s a travesty his name is not up there with Newton and Einstein as one of the greats.

“He’s Scotland’s Einstein and we should remember him as such.”

n James Clerk Maxwell: The Man Who Made the Modern World is on BBC2 Scotland tonight from 9pm.