James Clerk Maxwell (13 June 1831 – 5 November 1879) was a Scottish scientist in the field of mathematical physics. His most notable achievement was to formulate the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, bringing together for the first time electricity, magnetism, and light as manifestations of the same phenomenon. Maxwell’s equations for electromagnetism have been called the “second great unification in physics” after the first one realised by Isaac Newton.
With the publication of “A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field” in 1865, Maxwell demonstrated that electric and magnetic fields travel through space as waves moving at the speed of light. Maxwell proposed that light is an undulation in the same medium that is the cause of electric and magnetic phenomena. The unification of light and electrical phenomena led to the prediction of the existence of radio waves.
Maxwell helped develop the Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution, a statistical means of describing aspects of the kinetic theory of gases. He is also known for presenting the first durable colour photograph in 1861 and for his foundational work on analysing the rigidity of rod-and-joint frameworks like those in many bridges.
His discoveries helped usher in the era of modern physics, laying the foundation for such fields as special relativity and quantum mechanics. Many physicists regard Maxwell as the 19th-century scientist having the greatest influence on 20th-century physics. His contributions to the science are considered by many to be of the same magnitude as those of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. 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.
On the centenary of Maxwell’s birthday, Einstein described Maxwell’s work as the “most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton”.
Maxwell’s equations are a set of partial differential equations that, together with the Lorentz force law, form the foundation of classical electromagnetism, quantum field theory, classical optics, and electric circuits. They underpin all electric, optical and radio technologies, including power generation, electric motors, wireless communication, cameras, televisions, computers etc. Maxwell’s equations describe how electric and magnetic fields are generated by charges, currents, and changes of each other. One important consequence of the equations is that they demonstrate how fluctuating electric and magnetic fields propagate at the speed of light. Known as electromagnetic radiation, these waves may occur at various wavelengths to produce a spectrum from radio waves to γ-rays.
The equations have two major variants. The microscopic Maxwell equations have universal applicability, but are unwieldy for common calculations. They relate the electric and magnetic fields to total charge and total current, including the complicated charges and currents in materials at the atomic scale. The “macroscopic” Maxwell equations define two new auxiliary fields that describe the large-scale behaviour of matter without having to consider atomic scale details. However, their use requires experimentally determining parameters for a phenomenological description of the electromagnetic response of materials.
The term “Maxwell’s equations” is often used for equivalent alternative formulations. Versions of Maxwell’s equations based on the electric and magnetic potentials are preferred for explicitly solving the equations as a boundary value problem, analytical mechanics, or for use in quantum mechanics. The spacetime formulations (i.e., on spacetime rather than space and time separately), are commonly used in high energy and gravitational physics because they make the compatibility of the equations with special and general relativity manifest. In fact, Einstein developed special and general relativity to accommodate the absolute speed of light that drops out of the Maxwell equations with the principle that only relative movement has physical consequences.
Since the mid-20th century, it has been understood that Maxwell’s equations are not exact, but a classical field theory approximation of some aspects of the fundamental theory of quantum electrodynamics, although some quantum features, such as quantum entanglement, are completely absent and in no way approximated. (For example, quantum cryptography has no approximate version in Maxwell theory.) In many situations, though, deviations from Maxwell’s equations are immeasurably small. Exceptions include nonclassical light, photon–photon scattering, quantum optics, and many other phenomena related to photons or virtual photons.