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Today is James Clerk Maxwell’s birthday, he was a physicist who has been described as ‘Scotland’s Einstein’. This April a new building for pioneering scientific research at the University of Cambridge was named after him. To celebrate the opening of the Maxwell Centre Kettle’s Yard curated an exhibition Into boundless space I leap, inspired by the cutting edge research taking place there and the pioneering spirit of James Clerk Maxwell. For his birthday, we’ve rounded up some facts about this remarkable man.
Maxwell was the first Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics in Cambridge and a fellow of Trinity College.
In 1873, he developed the famous four Maxwell’s equations which played a key role in Albert Einstein’s work on the special theory of relativity. Maxwell’s discovery of the nature of electromagnetic waves forms the basis for much modern technology we take for granted like radio, television, and the mobile phone.
The structure of Saturn’s rings had baffled astronomers since the 1600s and this problem was the topic of the 1857 Adams Prize. Maxwell devoted two years to studying the problem, he methodically worked through the mathematical possibilities and identified that the rings couldn’t be solid or liquid. He realised they consisted of individual particles orbiting the planet independently. This was proved correct a century later when the Voyager space probe passed Saturn in the 1980s.
Passion for poetry
Maxwell loved poetry, memorising poems and writing his own, he was one of the most prominent Victorian poet scientists. Besides more serious attempts to express the trials of academic study, his work contained humorous ways to explain mathematical problems. A line from one of his poems ‘Let old words new truth inspire’ was used by Mark Titchner for his newly commissioned piece for the Maxwell Centre. Read more about Maxwell’s poetry.
Into boundless space I leap at the Maxwell Centre is open every Saturday until 2 July 2016, and includes works by fourteen contemporary artists and some of Maxwell’s original scientific instruments.