Ever since my Grandfather introduced me to the Encyclopedia Britannica, I’ve been interested in Science. I studied Chemistry, and my working life has been involved in mainly a science based background. One subject I was generally rubbish at was Physics. It wasn’t until I was introduced to Applied physics, where you actually see what all the formulae are used for in the real world, it just seemed boring to me.
From a young age I knew who Einstein, Galileo and Newton were. Gods of Physics, known throughout the world. Despite studying physics until second year of University, I don’t remember anyone mentioning James Clerk-Maxwell. If they did it was either in the passing as part of an formula or he was mentioned in the Monday 9am physics class, none of which I remember. 😂
It wasn’t until I met Fran, my wife, that Clerk-Maxwell became known to me. She couldn’t believe I’d never heard of him. After I started reading up on what he’d achieved, neither could I. Even more amazing was the fact he was Scottish. I knew all (or I thought I did) the famous Scottish inventors and engineers from Logie-Baird (television), Alexander Graham-Bell (telephone) James Watt (steam engine), Sir Alexander Fleming (Penicillin) and local inventors like Kirkpatrick MacMillan who invented the pedal bicycle and many more. James Clerk-Maxwell? I’d never heard of him.
Fran’s parents owned the Schoolhouse in Parton Village. It was right next to Parton Church, where we would eventually get married, with a graveyard on the other side. What I didn’t realise was Clerk-Maxwell was actually buried in a mausoleum just over the wall.
view of Loch Ken from Parton
So, who was he and what did he do?
He was born in Edinburgh in 1831, but his family moved to Kirkcudbright, Dumfrieshire when he was a boy. He moved back to Edinburgh to study at the prestigious Edinburgh Academy as a teenager where his knowledge of Geometry and skills in Mathematics started to shine. He produced his first scientific paper at the ripe old age of 14!! He was so young someone else had to present the paper on his behalf. By the age of 18 he’d already published significant papers which would become the foundations for some of his later work.
After 3yrs at the University of Edinburgh he spent 1850-56 at Cambridge University. He then successfully applied for the post as Chair of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College, Aberdeen at only 25 yrs of age. He went on to take a post at Kings College, London He marries Katherine Mary Dewar in 1858 returning to Glenair, Dumfriesshire for a period before returning to become the Cavendish Professor of Physics, taking charge of the Cavendish Laboratory. He nearly died of smallpox in 1860.
He became a world leading scientist in Electromagnetism, Colour Theory, Kinetics and Thermodynamics. Albert Einstein once said, ‘I stand not on the shoulders of Newton, but on the shoulders of James Clerk Maxwell.’
You can read all about him here on Wikipedia
During my times at Parton I met Sam Callander who lived in the village, looking after his mausoleum whilst steadily putting together a collection of Clerk-Maxwells work and life. Sam was such a nice man and devoted a large amount of his life to Clerk-Maxwells legacy. He became a walking encyclopedia on his life and works, promoting the man no one has ever heard of.
You can read about Sam here
The things he achieved were amazing and have changed our lives as more and more of the worlds greatest scientists built on James’ work.
My wife and I were at Parton cemetery laying flowers at her parents grave. I overheard some people in the graveyard talking. I thought I heard them mention Clerk-Maxwell’s name. I wondered if they were looking for the Kirk where he’s buried. Despite possibly heading towards embarrassing myself as usual, I went over and asked them. They were indeed looking for it. I took them around the other side of the church. On the way I said
‘So, you’ve come all the way from Belgium to Parton?’
All four of them looked in surprise.
‘How did you know we are from Belgium?’
‘I’m quite good with accents’
They looked at me suspiciously.
‘You spotted the B sticker on our car didn’t you?’
‘Yes. I did’ I replied
They burst out laughing.
I said ‘so why are you coming to see James Clerk-Maxwell?’
It turned out the young man was on holiday with his parents and sister. He was doing a PhD in Electromagnetism at a Belgian University and James was one of his heroes. Since they were in the region he’d asked if his Dad would drive him to see it.
So, maybe James is not as ‘unknown’ as I thought. The more I read about him the more intrigued I become about his life and achievements. His collection lives on in Edinburgh. One of Scotland’s unknown heroes who changed lives for the better.
‘Sunday, Science and James Clerk-Maxwell’ was brought to you by David Linden aka @qosfc1919 on Twitter ©️ Dodo Productions 2021