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How Professor Maxwell changed the world
The Economist ^ | Apr 2nd 2011 | J.P.

Posted on 04/05/2011 11:57:34 AM PDT by neverdem

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 cable.)

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—they 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 experimenters 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—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—which is why it continues to be taught to schoolchildren 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 seriously. 

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—itself an unfathomable premise—there 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.



TOPICS: Culture/Society; News/Current Events; Technical
KEYWORDS: abbeyroad; catastrophism; electromagnetism; goodtothelastdrop; jamesclerkmaxwell; maxwell; maxwellsdemon; physics; scotland; scotlandyet; silverhammer; stringtheory

1 posted on 04/05/2011 11:57:40 AM PDT by neverdem
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To: neverdem
God said:

... and there was light!

2 posted on 04/05/2011 12:09:53 PM PDT by Lonesome in Massachussets (Somewhere in Kenya a village is missing its idiot)
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To: neverdem

3 posted on 04/05/2011 12:10:43 PM PDT by frithguild (The Democrat Party Brand - Big Government protecting Entrenched Interests from Competition)
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To: neverdem

But remember, only leftist artists and authors are truly creative.


4 posted on 04/05/2011 12:10:48 PM PDT by Jacquerie
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To: neverdem
Maxwell and others like him were the heroes of my tender years along with Curie, Rutherford, Fleming.
5 posted on 04/05/2011 12:15:03 PM PDT by count-your-change (You don't have be brilliant, not being stupid is enough.)
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To: count-your-change

Always been partial to Faraday myself.


6 posted on 04/05/2011 12:17:57 PM PDT by allmendream (Tea Party did not send the GOP to D.C. to negotiate the terms of our surrender to socialism.)
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To: Lonesome in Massachussets
Those are the familiar "Maxwell's Equations" we all learned in E&M, but they aren't the ones Maxwell wrote. If you read his original Treatise, you will find 20 differential equations in ordinary differential equation form. These are the original Maxwell's Equations.

William Rowan Hamilton (of Hamiltonian Mechanics fame) re-cast Maxwell's original equations into a shorter version, which were 10 differential equations in ordinary differential equation form. It was not until Oliver Heaviside invented operator calculus that the form we see today was first expressed, so these are more formally known as the Maxwell-Heaviside Equations of electromagnetism.

Heaviside himself was criticized by the more rigorous mathematicians of his day for using operator calculus without really understanding the underlying mathematical theory. He was said to have remarked, somewhat raffishly, that he didn't understand the process of digestion, either, but that did not stop him from enjoying his dinner.

7 posted on 04/05/2011 12:18:46 PM PDT by chimera
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To: neverdem
Maxwell was a devout Evangelical Christian.
8 posted on 04/05/2011 12:18:46 PM PDT by Tribune7 (The Democrat Party is not a political organization but a religious cult.)
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To: neverdem
Maxwell's Equations


9 posted on 04/05/2011 12:19:07 PM PDT by E. Pluribus Unum ("...crush the bourgeoisie... between the millstones of taxation and inflation." --Vladimir Lenin)
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To: neverdem
Maxwell remains the great unsung hero of human progress,

Maxwell is well remembered and revered among people who actually contribute to human progress.

10 posted on 04/05/2011 12:22:23 PM PDT by DManA
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To: Lonesome in Massachussets

Ah, ya beat me to it.


11 posted on 04/05/2011 12:22:54 PM PDT by Steely Tom (Obama goes on long after the thrill of Obama is gone)
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To: chimera

Sorry, the Hamilton reformulation used quaternions, not ordinary differential calculus.


12 posted on 04/05/2011 12:26:34 PM PDT by chimera
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To: chimera

There was a wonderful article on Heaviside in the IEEE spectrum about 15 years ago by a Dartmouth Professor. Heaviside is one of history’s underappreciated geniuses, for sure.


13 posted on 04/05/2011 12:29:14 PM PDT by Lonesome in Massachussets (Somewhere in Kenya a village is missing its idiot)
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To: allmendream

Another giant!


14 posted on 04/05/2011 12:35:02 PM PDT by count-your-change (You don't have be brilliant, not being stupid is enough.)
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To: Lonesome in Massachussets

Yeah, I always do a little aside about him when we talk about the (Heaviside) step function in linear system theory. We truly stand on the shoulders of giants.


15 posted on 04/05/2011 12:35:08 PM PDT by chimera
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To: DManA

That’s what I thought. He’s not up there with Newton or Einstein, but anyone with a reasonable high school education should have heard of him at least.

In fact, his name was used more than any others I think.


16 posted on 04/05/2011 12:39:59 PM PDT by Tolsti2
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To: Lonesome in Massachussets
!
17 posted on 04/05/2011 12:44:17 PM PDT by Erasmus (I love "The Raven," but then what do I know? I'm just a poetaster.)
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To: neverdem
The are other feminon2 to be explored!

And this is just one current!

18 posted on 04/05/2011 12:59:56 PM PDT by Young Werther ("Quae cum ita sunt" Since these things are so!)
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To: neverdem
Except for one thing: there is no such ****ing thing as “fields and invisible physical lines of force(TM)” in real life. Kind of like Santa Claus and the Easter rabbit...

These so-called "scientists" are so full of it.

Sheesh, fields and physical lines of force could feed the monkeys flying out of Hillary Clinton’s ample derriere. Maxwell Schmaxwell.

I missed my calling. I spend all my time making sh!x up and posting it on FR for free when I could have got my PhD in making sh!x up and been paid for it.

Magical fields, imaginary numbers and other crap... similar things were concocted to create the Global Warming Crisis.

Ignoring reality in an attempt to support a theory. It's what these scientists do. It's just like GODZILLA. He is the 'invisible lines of Maxwell' that destroyed Japan. The reason no one has ever actually SEEN Godzilla, is because he is 'invisible'.

I admit I don't get it. But neither do 'they'. Their 'theories' are just ways to explain what they don't 'get' yet, ya'know?

</s/s/s/s/s>

IBTSH (In before the science haters)

19 posted on 04/05/2011 1:17:08 PM PDT by LibWhacker
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To: LibWhacker

But that it powers our society, and did pretty good jobs on the Japanese to end WWII.


20 posted on 04/05/2011 1:31:28 PM PDT by onedoug (If)
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To: LibWhacker
When I see me a graviton then I'll believe in gravity.

Until then I'll keep wearing my sticky boots.

21 posted on 04/05/2011 1:42:02 PM PDT by who_would_fardels_bear
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To: onedoug

Yes, sorry. I should’ve explained. Those seven paragraphs were similar to seven comments I got on just one cosmology thread I posted recently. A person can’t post anything about science around here without attracting the science-hating knuckleheads. So, I thought if I distilled the essence of what they usually say and put it in one comment, they’d be satified and go away.


22 posted on 04/05/2011 1:42:48 PM PDT by LibWhacker
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To: who_would_fardels_bear

lol


23 posted on 04/05/2011 1:44:22 PM PDT by LibWhacker
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To: El Gato; Ernest_at_the_Beach; Robert A. Cook, PE; lepton; LadyDoc; jb6; tiamat; PGalt; Dianna; ...
The spread of superbugs - What can be done about the rising risk of antibiotic resistance?

Vitamin D can decrease -- or increase -- breast cancer development and insulin resistance (20K IU?)

Researchers link herpes to Alzheimer's disease (cold sore virus)

High dose of oxygen enhances natural cancer treatment (artemisinin)

FReepmail me if you want on or off my health and science ping list.

24 posted on 04/05/2011 1:59:32 PM PDT by neverdem (Xin loi minh oi)
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To: Tolsti2

I have to disagree there. His accomplishment is ever bit as significant and astonishing as Einstein. Newton is in a class by himself all alone.


25 posted on 04/05/2011 2:26:39 PM PDT by DManA
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To: LibWhacker

Good one! Oh, wait a minute...you’re being facetious, you scamp you. Making fun of Hillary’s behind. Next thing you know, you’ll be standing around that nuclear reactor telling naughty jokes and wearing a lampshade on your head.
Knuckleheads of the world unite!


26 posted on 04/05/2011 2:28:27 PM PDT by blueunicorn6 ("A crack shot and a good dancer")
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To: LibWhacker

You had me there for a second until I saw the IBTSH.


27 posted on 04/05/2011 2:34:27 PM PDT by aruanan
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To: LibWhacker
So, I thought if I distilled the essence...

Essence? Like you've ever seen an essence much less distilled one. What rot. ;-)

28 posted on 04/05/2011 2:44:26 PM PDT by decimon
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To: decimon
The interesting thing about distilling the essence of what they usually say is that it's a lot like playing around with fractals.

What these folks usually say is a bunch of bloated flapdoodle and non sequiturs, right? Then as you zoom in and look at it at smaller and smaller scales, trying to get to the essence of it, you find it's bloated flapdoodle and non sequiturs all the way down. Fascinating.

29 posted on 04/05/2011 3:41:11 PM PDT by LibWhacker
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To: E. Pluribus Unum

Technically Maxwell’s Equations in vacuum, but I digress... :)

Nice GIF — I’ll have to swipe it!

MD


30 posted on 04/05/2011 4:17:21 PM PDT by MikeD (We live in a world where babies are like velveteen rabbits that only become real if they are loved.)
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To: AdmSmith; bvw; callisto; ckilmer; dandelion; ganeshpuri89; gobucks; KevinDavis; Las Vegas Dave; ...

Thanks neverdem. Professor Maxwell is in the House!

· String Theory Ping List ·
Sorry we re open
· Join · Bookmark · Topics · Google ·
· View or Post in 'blog · post a topic · subscribe ·


31 posted on 04/05/2011 6:17:02 PM PDT by SunkenCiv (Thanks Cincinna for this link -- http://www.friendsofitamar.org)
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To: 75thOVI; agrace; aimhigh; Alice in Wonderland; AndrewC; aragorn; aristotleman; Avoiding_Sulla; ...

Thanks neverdem. Looks like *grounds* for a double ping.
 
Catastrophism
 
· join · view topics · view or post blog · bookmark · post new topic · subscribe ·
 

32 posted on 04/05/2011 6:17:02 PM PDT by SunkenCiv (Thanks Cincinna for this link -- http://www.friendsofitamar.org)
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To: frithguild

Yeah, but can it clean out a nuclear reactor?


33 posted on 04/05/2011 6:31:16 PM PDT by GOPJ (http://hisz.rsoe.hu/alertmap/index2.php - It's only uncivil when someone on the right does it.- Laz)
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