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James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk Maxwell (1831 - 1879) was a physicist born June 13,1831, in Edinburgh, Scotland, where his parents lived in an affluent neighborhood. Soon after his birth the family moved to a countryside estate about 15 miles from the town of Dumfries. While growing up in this rural environment the young Maxwell first began to observe nature and take a keen interest in understanding the physical world around him through science.

In later years this early curiosity would lead to a serious study of math and physics and career achievements that were of profound importance. For example, Maxwell's mathematical formulas related to the study of electromagnetism enabled Albert Einstein to discover the Theory of Relativity, according to statements made by Einstein himself. Many important breakthroughs in the history of electronics – such as the invention of television, radar, and radio – are based on Maxwell’s contributions and discoveries. He is generally accepted as the father of modern physics, but he also made important discoveries and contributions in the fields of astronomy, math, and engineering.

When Maxwell was eight years old his mother died. His family returned to Edinburgh, where he attended the Edinburgh Academy. At the age of 14 he wrote a mathematical paper that was read to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, confirming that he was a young scholar with special insight and potential. After graduation he studied at the University of Edinburgh and at Cambridge University.

In 1856, Maxwell's father died and, shortly after, Maxwell was appointed to the chair at Marischal College in Aberdeen where he became a professor of physics at age 25. In 1857 Maxwell entered a scientific essay competition involving the topic of how Saturn’s rings are constructed. The subject piqued his interest and through extensive research Maxwell came to the conclusion that the rings were made of many tiny particles of solid matter. His paper won a prize and then, more than a century later, the NASA Voyager spacecraft gathered data that did indeed confirm Maxwell’s idea as accurate and factual.

Maxwell married Katherine Mary Dewar, whose father was a leading figure at Marischal College, in 1859. The following year Maxwell was appointed chair of the Natural Philosophy Department at King’s College in London, where he spent the next few years doing research and performing experiments that culminated in his discovery that the speed of an electromagnetic field resembles the speed of light. This led him to the idea that light is actually an electromagnetic force. Maxwell left King's College in 1865 and returned to Scotland, returning only briefly to England to teach experimental physics at Cambridge.

Maxwell often used mathematical formulas to show how electromagnetic fields behaved and how electricity is related to magnetism. He also explained that electrical and magnetic fields travel through space as waves. Some of his main accomplishments were related to Andre Ampere’s and Michael Faraday’s theories of electricity and magnetism. Maxwell expressed many of these ideas in a paper titled “On Faraday’s Lines of Force”. The paper was first presented to the Cambridge Philosophical Society in lectures Maxwell gave between 1855 and 1856.

Maxwell came up with 20 mathematical equations to explain his theories, using the same kind of system that was later employed by Einstein to describe the famous Theory of Relativity. The 20 formulas of Maxwell were later distilled into four fundamental equations that are now known as Maxwell’s Laws. The laws describe the nature of static and moving electrical and magnetic charges, and the relationship that exists between both. They further suggest that light is in fact a type of electromagnetic wave or a form of electromagnetic radiation, and this theoretical idea helped Marconi to invent the radio.

Professor Maxwell’s health deteriorated and he endured a tremendous amount of physical pain and suffering toward the end of his life. From Scotland he and his wife – who was also in poor health – returned to Cambridge, England in the fall of 1879. Maxwell died there on November 5th of the same year.

There is a mountain on the planet Venus named after James Clerk Maxwell, the Maxwell Mountain.

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