James Clerk MaxwellMacTutor Index

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Conclusion

It is clear that Maxwell was an excellent scientist, admired by many of his colleagues and responsible for many great works. He made impressive contributions to numerous fields including colour, Saturn's Rings, global analysis, cybernetics and geometry. His papers on the kinetic theory of gases alone are enough for him to be regarded as an exceptional mathematician. However it is work on electromagnetism that should separate him from the rest. His masterpiece, Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, revolutionarised our views on the physical world, without which the world would not be as it is today.

It would be expected that a man who has achieved so much would be a household name. This is not the case. Maxwell's difficulty to present his work in a coherent and organised state, added to the complexity of his ideas, made his work incredibly difficult to comprehend. Maxwell's modesty did not help his case as it prevented him from pronouncing his work to be worthy of the attention it deserved. Thus few scientist gave it the time and effort necessary to understand it. This led to a delay in the scientific world appreciating his work.

This is what cost Maxwell the fame he deserves. Unlike the likes of Einstein and Newton, Maxwell was no longer living when his work became truly famous. This resulted in his work being far better known than his person. People know about Newton and Einstein because they made sure people knew what they were responsible for. This was not in Maxwell's character. In his inaugural address at King's College London in 1860, Maxwell said:

We, while following out the discoveries of the teachers of science, must experience in some degree the same desire to know and the same joy in arriving at knowledge which encouraged and animated them. [5, p670]

For Maxwell was just a quiet, modest man who took great joy in his work and did not need fame and the appreciation of others to give him satisfaction in what he had achieved.


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Kevin Johnson May 2002