His name doesn’t always come to mind when thinking of famous Scots; but James Clerk Maxwell FRS FRSE – whose birthday is today – should be one of the most shining of the luminaries Scottish science. A theoretical physicist, he’s been described as the creator of the “second great unification in physics”, the first one came from the mind of by Isaac Newton.
Among his achievements was his theory of classical electromagnetism. This shows that electricity, magnetism and light are all variations on a single theme – the electromagnetic field. He was able to demonstrate that electric and magnetic fields travelled through space at the speed of light. He also predicted that radio waves existed, leading ultimately to the development of modern telecommunications.
His discoveries helped usher in the era of modern physics. They laid the foundation for subjects such as special relativity and quantum mechanics. Indeed, many physicists think his contributions to science are as great as those of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. He’s also been described as the 19th-century scientist who had the greatest influence on 20th-century physics.
In a poll at the turn of the 21st century, a survey of the 100 most prominent physicists said he was the third greatest physicist of all time, behind only the two named above. Einstein even kept a photograph of Maxwell on his study wall, alongside pictures of Michael Faraday and Newton.