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The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell
The Man Who Changed Everything – This is the first biography in twenty years of James Clerk Maxwell, one of the greatest scientists of our time and yet a man relatively unknown to the wider public. Approaching science with a freshness unbound by convention or previous expectations, he produced some of the most original scientific thinking of the nineteenth century — and his discoveries went on to shape the twentieth century.
Book Review by KB
An OK book about a GREAT man
James Clerk Maxwell certainly deserves to be better known. He is as great as Newton or Copernicus or any other revolutionary scientist. I had no idea how much he did. His work on color theory was foundational. His analysis of the rings of Saturn is still valid and the basis of our current understanding.
There’s a reason we learn the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution in both statistics and thermodynamics, he was a pioneer in both of those fields and the theory of gases as well. And I haven’t even gotten to electromagnetism! He predicted that light was electromagnetic waves, and so calculated the speed of light accurately from theory even before it was measured as accurately experimentally. On top of all that, he seems to have been a first class Christian gentleman, and generous in every possible way.
I didn’t know what a poet Maxwell was, although I remember seeing a couple of his poems in math journals. I think he wrote one on knots that is famous. It would be fun to get a book of his complete poems.
I also learned a great deal about other nineteenth century scientists and mathematicians and how they related to each other.
I hate to give this book four stars. After all, I really knew nothing about Maxwell except for his work in electromagnetism and that he was Christian and Scot; so I owe the author a great debt. (Oddly enough, I think I learned he was a Christian in a Kurt Vonnegut book.) What I just couldn’t take about this book was that it seemed to be for children. It starts calling Maxwell “James” at the beginning, and the tone seems to be intended to draw a child into the story. It even seemed like a children’s book at the beginning, but then sort of became an adult science biography, but continued some of the tone of a children’s book.
The author continued to call him “James” all the way through the book, even though every other adult was called by the family name or the full name. A few times I had to reread a section carefully because I was confused about who was being described. There was just something about the style that rubbed me the wrong way.
“This is a wonderful, short biography that gives a vivid account of James Clerk Maxwell’s life and work.” (Materials Today, June 2004)
“…an absorbing account of Maxwell’s life and work” (Sunday Telegraph Review, 19th September 2004)
“…provides the reader with the opportunity to understand Maxwell’s contributions to modern science and technology.” (The Mathematical Gazette, March 2005)
“…a fascinating book about an inspiring man…” (Journal of Raman Spectroscopy, Vol.36, No.3, March 2005)
From the Inside Flap
James Clerk Maxwell (1831- 1879) changed our perception of reality and laid the foundations for many of the scientific and technological advances of the twentieth century. An unassuming and modest man, who simply wanted to understand how the world around him worked, he made fundamental contributions to every aspect of physical science. By discovering the nature of electromagnetic waves, he made possible the development of our great communications networks: television, radio, radar and the mobile telephone.
He took the first colour photograph and introduced the system of thought experiments, later used by Einstein. His influence across all areas of physical science has been enormous. Often his ideas were ahead of his time and we had to wait many years before others confirmed his theories.
Leading scientists have always recognised Maxwell as a giant figure and he holds a unique position among them, inspiring both wonder and affection. In life, he was a blend of opposites – a serious man who saw fun everywhere, a hopeless teacher who inspired students, a shy man who was the hub of any gathering where he felt at ease.