James Clerk Maxwell (13 June 1831 – 5 November 1879)
Maxwell was one of the greatest scientists. In fact, in the millennium poll—a survey of the 100 most prominent physicists—Maxwell was voted the third greatest physicist of all time, behind only Newton and Einstein.
Maxwell was born in 1831 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was born into a well-to-do middle class family. His father was a lawyer. Unfortunately, his mother died when he was only eight. He had great curiosity as a child and was always asking how things worked and moved as they did.
He was a good student at school. He attended the Edinburgh Academy after being taught at home for a few years. There he was nicknamed ‘Dafty’ because he was at first regarded as shy and rather dull, and he made no friendships.
Though he was slow to begin with, he started to overtake his classmates and won the highest prizes for scholarship, mathematics and English. Moreover, when he was just fourteen years old, he wrote his first scientific paper in which he described ellipses, ovals and other curves.
He studied at University of Edinburgh and University of Cambridge, winning a fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge. He wrote two more scientific papers when he was just eighteen.
Maxwell formulated just 4 equations, now known as Maxwell’s laws or Maxwell’s equations, which completely described the behavior of electric and magnetic fields and their interrelations. He also showed that electromagnetic field travelled at the speed of light. This was no coincidence because he proved that light was a form of electromagnetic radiation. Radio, television, radar and communications derive from Maxwell’s discovery.
He is known mainly for three other things. He came up with mathematical proof that Saturn’s rings were composed of numerous small solid particles. This was proved recently by the Voyager spacecraft in the 1980s. He also produced the world’s first colour photograph by using red, green and blue filters to take photos and merging them. He also applied probability and statistics to describe the properties of gas molecules.
He married Katherine Dewar, daughter of the principal of the university he was teaching at. But they did not have any children. Maxwell himself died at the young age of 48 due to abdominal cancer.