Friday, December 18, 2015

Book Review 358: The Man Who Changed Everything

THE MAN WHO CHANGED EVERYTHING: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell, by Basil Mahon. 226 pages, illustrated. Wiley, $29.95

I probably would not have read this book had I not been informed three times in the space of two weeks (twice in science books, once in an astronomy lecture) that James Clerk Maxwell is “hardly known in the wider world.”

True, many surveys have revealed that two-thirds of Americans know no more about the natural world than a peasant of the 11th century, but surely among the other third the man who unified the electric and magnetic forces, who along with Boltzmann explained the behavior of gases is at least known for that? It turns out that Clerk Maxwell is worth remembering for much more than that.

I did not know myself that Maxwell (working alongside his wife Katherine) elucidated the secrets of color vision, prepared the tables used by color printers and made the first color photograph. An experimentalist as well as a theorist, he did so with the simplest equipment, made mostly of wood and paper.

“He was the first to use field equations to represent physical processes . . . to use statistical methods to describe processes involving many particles.” He was on the team that regularized the units of measurement in electromagnetism, he devised equations that are fundamental in control theory and information theory, he explained why the rings of Saturn are stable, he set Planck on the path that led to quantum mechanics and Einstein to special relativity.

“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.”  

So why isn’t he as widely known as Darwin or Einstein or even his friend Kelvin?

Basil Mahon speculates that he never had a controversial champion like Huxley to spread his fame. In fact, while some of his theories were only reluctantly accepted, most ended up as non-controversial; and none attracted the fury of the morons in pulpits.

Nor was there any scandal to attach to his name. We like our biographies to show warts and all, but Maxwell seems to have had no warts. He was universally esteemed, even loved, for his charm, tact, public spirit, generosity and humor. He was a constant practical joker, but never of the kind that humiliated or demeaned the target.

He treated the workers on his Scottish farm well and struggled to see that their children had opportunities. In the city he devoted evenings to lecturing at workingmen’s institutes.

He was even a better than average writer of humorous poems.

His life was, nevertheless, marked by big unhappinesses. His mother died when he was eight; his first and possibly great love was for a cousin, whom he could not marry; and he died at age 48.

Mahon’s brief biography is aimed at readers without mathematics but is not dumbed down as a result. He is an engineer and a virtue of his biography is that he often points out how working engineers still use Maxwell’s findings to make their designs work.

Maxwell is well worth getting to know better.

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