Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Man Behind Your iPhone

     He's also the man behind your radio, TV, garage-door opener, telephone....  He's James Clerk Maxwell and in the unlikely event you did hear about him, what you were told was probably wrong.

     In The Man Who Changed Everything, Basil Mahon provides a straightforward biography of a straightforward man, a Victorian described by his peers as "a perfect Christian gentleman," whose wide-ranging intellect gave us the concise beauty of Maxwell's Equations, linking electricity and magnetism and predicting the existence of radio waves a long generation before anyone intentionally created or detected one.

     He was far from the popular image of an eccentric genius (other than, perhaps, his propensity to write light verse to congratulate or, on rare occasion, criticize).  Modest and rather unassuming, Maxwell (one really should write "Clerk Maxwell," as the last name passed with a small estate to the second son of the Clerk family in the previous generation) did significant work on color perception and was the first to grasp that colored light was additive and the primary colors for light are thus red, blue and green:* Professor Maxwell is in your TV not once but twice.  He was also much of the impetus behind and the first director of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge and gave us the first recorded example of the "thought experiment," Maxwell's Demon.

     He was a good man, well-liked by peers and students (the latter more in spite of than due to his abilities as an instructor); he died at the age of 48, leaving behind the foundations of a remade world.

     (The book can be purchased via the Amazon link at Tam's blog.)
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* Pigments -- paint or ink -- are subtractive, with red blue and yellow as primaries.  Having got the process right, Maxwell was able to confirm that our color vision relies on only the three primary colors.

4 comments:

Old NFO said...

Thanks, I'll go get it.

Graybeard said...

Read that when it came out, it's a good read.

Maxwell is overlooked today. Only folks who study physics or EE seem to be even aware of him. It's too bad.

Stranger said...

True, Maxwell is near forgotten, while others who did little beyond holding a chair down are growing ever more famous.

On the other hand, if we were stuck with Maxwell's original equations, the world would be a much less technologically advanced world.

For every thousand who can tell you in at least a general way who James Clerk-Maxwell was, only a handful can tell you who Oliver Heaviside was.

Even fewer who can tell you how even the most basic of Heaviside's transformations of Maxwell's equations have changed the world. A coherent theory for field vectors has done a lot, quietly.

Stranger

Blackwing1 said...

A lot of mechanical engineers are familiar with Maxwell due to exposure to thermodynamics.

Ever read Niven's "Unfinished Story #1" from the "All the Myriad Ways" short-story collection?