James Clerk Maxwell
Episode #10 of the course “Unknown Scientists Who Changed The World”
Albert Einstein once said that “the work of James Clerk Maxwell changed the world forever.” Indeed, Maxwell provided the first color photograph and laid the groundwork for the future development of television, radio, radar, microwave, and infrared technologies. In the millennium survey of the greatest physicists of all time, Maxwell was voted third behind Einstein and Isaac Newton.
Born in 1831 as John Clerk in Edinburgh, Scotland, Maxwell was home-schooled until the age of 8 when his mother died. He was then sent to the prestigious Edinburgh Academy. He started classes at the University of Edinburgh at the age of 16 before moving to Cambridge University, where he graduated with a degree in mathematics. He passed away in Cambridge, England in 1879.
Maxwell’s accomplishments are many. At Aberdeen University, he formulated a theory on the 200-year-old question of how the rings of Saturn stay in place without crashing into each other. His theory was validated by the Voyager Space Shuttle over 100 years later. He also attended King’s College, London, where he performed experiments in electromagnetism. He worked on telescopes and thermodynamic theories, creating many mathematical equations that would later help Einstein develop his special theory of relativity. Even Max Planck’s quantum theory was derived from Maxwell’s equations.
Maxwell produced three scientific papers while he was a teenager—the first at 14—but all were rejected by the Royal Society of Edinburgh because they believed he was too young to have written them by himself.
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