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James Clerk Maxwell: Perspectives on his Life and Work

Raymond Flood, Mark McCartney and Andrew Whitaker, editors
Oxford University Press
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The Basic Library List Committee suggests that undergraduate mathematics libraries consider this book for acquisition.

[Reviewed by
Peggy Aldritch Kidwell
, on

This volume of essays by thirteen eminent scholars, many of them British, offers a rich introduction to the life and work of the nineteenth century physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879). The book offers an overview of the ideas of a leading Victorian scientist and an informed introduction to a large historical literature.

The book begins with four essays relating to Maxwell’s life, the first a general summary and the remaining three accounts of his teaching at the University of Aberdeen, the University of London, and the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. The authors pay heed not only to the politics of these institutions and the differing goals of the students, but to Maxwell’s views about using apparatus in teaching. This material was new to me.

The second and longest section of the book concerns Maxwell’s science. He is remembered for formulating a mathematical theory of the electromagnetic field that drew on the experimental discoveries of Michael Faraday and predicted that light is an electromagnetic wave. Maxwell also made pioneering applications of statistics to the theory of the motion of atoms, laying foundations for the kinetic theory of gases and statistical mechanics more generally. These essays not only trace these ideas and some of their immediate consequences, but discuss Maxwell’s early work on the rings of Saturn, his writings on the science of color, his contributions to the theory of liquids, and his ideas about fluid dynamics.

The two penultimate essays discuss lesser known aspects of Maxwell — his poetry and his religious views. These are grouped together with a concluding summary. Extensive notes and a useful index follow.

The authors — like Maxwell himself — are happy to assume that readers are comfortable with technical detail, while never losing sight of general themes. The book offers enticing snapshots of Maxwell. His views on some topics — such as women in physics —may offend. More generally, however, many readers will come away from perusing this book wanting to learn more about Maxwell’s work, and its consequences.

Peggy Aldrich Kidwell received her undergraduate degree in physics and her PhD. in history of science. She is Curator of Mathematics in the Division of Medicine and Science at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

1. Introductory Biography, Raymond Flood
2. Maxwell at Aberdeen, John Reid
3. Maxwell at King's College, London, John Reid
4. Cambridge and Building the Cavendish Laboratory, Isobel Falconer
5. Maxwell and the Science of Colour, Malcolm Longair
6. Maxwell and the Rings of Saturn, Andrew Whitaker
7. Maxwell's Kinetic Theory 1859-1870, Elizabeth Garber
8. Maxwell and the Theory of Liquids, John Rowlinson
9. Maxwell's Famous (or Infamous) Demon, Andrew Whitaker
10. Maxwell's Contribution to Electricity and Magnetism, Dan Siegel
11. 1. The Maxwellians: The Reception and Further Development of Maxwell's Electromagnetic Theory, Chen-Pang Yeang
12. The Fluid Dynamics of James Clerk Maxwell, Keith Moffatt
Poetry, Religion and Conclusions
13. Boundaries of Perception: James Clerk Maxwell's Poetry of Self, Senses and Science, Stella Pratt-Smith
14. Maxwell, Faith and Physics, Philip Marston
15. I Remember Years and Labours as a Tale that I have Read, Mark McCartney