James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)

Statue of James Clerk Maxwell, George St, Edinburgh, © Hollie McIntosh

In 2010 James Clerk Maxwell was voted as Scotland’s greatest scientist, which was an amazing accolade in this nation that has produced many brilliant scientists. Maxwell was born in Edinburgh and went to Edinburgh University in 1847. His first scientific paper was published at the age of 15 and then he published two more papers at the University. Later he studied maths at Cambridge University where he won a prize for his research on the rings of Saturn. He demonstrated that the rings were neither completely solid, nor completely fluid, and that the rings were made of small solid particles. This work was confirmed through the investigation of Saturn by the Voyager over a hundred years later.

For a while Maxwell taught optics and hydrostatics at Cambridge University and in 1856 he was appointed professor of physics at Marischal College in Aberdeen (now Aberdeen University), Scotland. He was made redundant a year later because of the merger of Marischal College with King’s College in Aberdeen. This led to him being appointed professor of physics at King’s College, London, until his father died and he inherited the family estate in Scotland. It was here that he focused his attention on research into electricity and magnetism. His goal was to show that Faraday (the Christian who invented the electric generator and transformer) was correct in his ‘force field theory’, but he needed to prove the maths for this. Maxwell’s famous four equations (known as Maxwell’s Equations) showed that electricity and magnetism were waves manifested in different ways. The foundation for much of the technology we have today was built upon his equations.

In 1887 Heinrich Hertz produced the first man-made radio waves as a result of Maxwell’s work, and later X-rays also confirmed his predictions, as did quantum physics. If you use anything that involves electromagnetism, such as a radio, television, computer, mobile phone or Ipod, you can be grateful to Maxwell. Universally he is so highly regarded that he is put together with Newton and Einstein for his contribution to science. Besides this he was one of the first scientists to develop colour photography and he became the professor of physics at Cambridge University and supervised the building of the Cavendish laboratory.

Since childhood he had been a strong Christian and loved to memorise the Bible. As an adult he became an elder in his local church in Glenlair, Scotland, and would regularly visit the sick and housebound to encourage them and pray with them. One of the prayers he wrote shows that his science was based on his faith:

‘Almighty God, who has created man in Thine own image, and made him a living soul that he might seek after Thee, and have dominion over Thy creatures, teach us to study the works of Thy hands, that we may subdue the earth to our use, and strengthen the reason for Thy service; so to receive Thy blessed Word, that we may believe on Him whom Thou has sent, to give us the knowledge of salvation and the remission of sins. All of which we ask in the name of the same Jesus Christ, our Lord.’

Ann Lamont, 21 Great Scientists who believed the Bible, p.208, Creation Science Foundation, © 1995

Maxwell was rigorous in his scientific methodology and encouraged others to be the same. This passion for ‘doing good science’ inspired him to investigate two theories from his era and reject them both on scientific grounds. The first was Laplace’s popular ‘nebular hypothesis’. Laplace said that the solar system began as a gas cloud which contracted over millions of years to give birth to planets and so there was no need of a Creator. Maxwell proved mathematically that Laplace’s theory was bad science.

Secondly, he debated with the supporters of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Maxwell accepted the scientific understanding and evidence that natural selection, adaptation and variation within the species can occur, but he rejected the belief that all living things have evolved from a common ancestor without a Creator. In a paper he read out in 1873 at the British Association for the Advancement of Science he said:

No theory of evolution can be formed to account for the similarity of molecules, for evolution necessarily implies continuous change…. The exact equality of each molecule to all others of the same kind gives it… the essential character of a manufactured article, and precludes the idea of its being eternal and self-existent

ibid, p.207