Science in Christian Perspective


Maxwell, Devout Inquirer
Raymond J. Seeger
(NSF Retired)
4507 Wetherill Road
Bethesda, Maryland 20816

This is the twelfth in a series on religious scientists.

From: JASA 37 (June 1985): 93-96.

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79), born in Edinburgh, was the son of a Scottish Laird, an advocate, whose small farm-estate was called Glenlair. Fascinated by symmetry, at thirteen while at the Edinburgh Academy he made pasteboard models of Euclid's regular solids. Two years later he devised a simple method for drawing ovals. The next year he entered the University of Edinburgh; his father used to take him to meetings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Edinburgh Society of Arts, At nineteen he entered Peterhouse, Cambridge, but transferred after the first term to Trinity (William Whewell, Master), where he subsequently received a scholarship. He attended lectures by George G. Stokes. In 1854 he was second wrangler and was awarded the Smith prize jointly with E.J. Routh. About this time he developed his life interest in color phenomena, e.g., the three primary lights, blue, green, and red, which comprised his first lecture at the Royal Institution (186 1). Having received a B.A. in 1854 he obtained a fellowship at Trinity the next year.

In 1856 Maxwell became Professor of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College, Aberdeen, where he continued his Cambridge practice of giving lectures for working men. Unfortunately, he was not retained when the college merged. In 1860 he was made Professor of Natural Philosophy at King's College, London; here mandatory evening lectures were included! He performed his own experiments in the garret of his Kensington residence. Meanwhile, in 1859, he had won the St. John's College (Cambridge) Adams Prize for his essay on "The Structure of Saturn's Rings," (said to have been "a remarkable application of mathematics to physical thought"). His father having died in 1856, Maxwell resigned from King's College in 1865 and returned to Glenlair. In 1871, however, he was appointed to the new chair of Experimental Physics at Trinity, where a search had been made for "a mathematician who has actual experience in experimenting in physical science;" his primary duties were to encourage physics research, and to design and superintend the building of the new Cavendish Laboratory (completed 1874, furnished 1877). Under Maxwell's influence there was a revival of physical science at Cambridge and the Cavendish eventually became world famous.

In his inaugural lecture he noted, "We may find illustrations [of physical phenomena] in games and gymnastics, in traveling by land and by water, in storms of the air and of the sea, wherever there is matter and motion." Later he published a delightful small volume on Matter and Motion (1877), which is so simple as to seem easily understandable, but is actually quite profound, He himself was fascinated by his dynamical top. Meanwhile, his concern for the stability of Saturn's Rings had aroused his interest in D. Bernoulli's (1738) kinetic theory of matter. He realized that owing to collisions all the molecules of a gas could not maintain the same speed; he formulated the distribution law (1859) and developed the theory for the transfer of matter (diffusion), momentum (viscosity), and heat (1860-66).

While at London he had the early good fortune to make the acquaintanceship of Michael Faraday. In 1856 he realized that the latter's concept of electric and magnetic fields of force in a medium can be readily translated into mathematical language, summarized in Maxwell's famous electromagnetic equations, in which spatial action takes place over time from point to point-no so-called action at a distance. "A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field" was presented in 1865, completed two years later, and immortalized in his classical "Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism" (1873). Earlier he had noted that the ratio of the electromagnetic unit of charge to the electrostatic unit is numerically equal to the speed of light. He was led to predict the existence of electromagnetic waves that would behave like light, e.g., be refrangible in material media (confirmed experimentally by H.R. Hertz (1888)), and would exert radiation pressure (confirmed by P.N. Lebedev (1900)). Maxwell spent his last years editing "An Account of the Electrical Researches of the Honourable Henry Cavendish F.R.S." (1879). He died at the early age of thirty-eight. This brilliant scientist was buried in the churchyard of the Parton Kirk, where he had been an elder. He had been honored with the Rumford (1868) and Volta (1878) medals. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (18 74), the American Philosophical Society (1875), the Royal Society of Sciences of G6ttingen (187 5), the Royal Academy of Science of Amsterdam (18 77), the Imperial Academy of Sciences of Vienna (1877). He had received an Ll. D. (Edinburgh (1870), D.C.L. (Oxford 1876), and Dr. Phs. Sc. (Pavia 1878).

There was a single-heartedness to Maxwell, a depth of unity in his life as a whole, a unity of his nature. He exhibited not only scientific industriousness, but also basic poetic feeling and imagination. He was profoundly sincere. At the same time he had an overflowing humor; there was elasticity in his step, a sparkle in his eye. He was an avid reader, particularly of English literature. It was said there was "not a single subject on which he cannot talk and talk well." He had a retentive memory and a facility for versification. His marriage to Katherine M. Dewar, daughter of the Principal of Marischal, was a happy one; together they read the English classics. He was devoted to her; his dying glance was fixed on her-a sort of mystical marriage. He rode with her; he walked with his dog. He had a tenderness for all living things.

Maxwell had an extensive and minute knowledge of the Scriptures from his childhood. It is said that he knew the chapter and verse of almost any quotation from the Psalms (by age eight he had memorized Ps. 119). As a schoolboy he had attended St. Andrews Sunday mornings and the Episcopal Chapel in the afternoons. Although his hereditary piety and historical interest was in Calvinism, he never identified himself with any particular religious opinion. He had an innate reverence for sacred things. To be sure, he had an interest in things more than in people, in theology more than in anthropology. In him there was a blending of Presbyterian and Episcopalian. He read and thought much on religious subjects. Although orthodox, he was tolerant of unbelievers such as WK. Clifford. A favorite book was Thomas Browne's "Religio Medici"; a favorite author, George Herbert.

"There was deep humility before his God, reverent submission to His will, and hearty belief in the love and atonement of that Divine Saviour." He was a regular communicant at the College Chapel, regular in his church attendance, charitable. At Glenlair he would visit the sick, read and pray with them. There were daily prayers in his household. For example, "Teach us to study the work of Thy hands that we may subdue the earth to our uses, and strengthen our reason for Thy service; and so rescue Thy blessed Word, that we may believe on Him whom Thou hast sent to give us the knowledge of salvation and the remission of our sins." He read the Scriptures each night with his wife. In his letters to her he was wont to discuss Scriptural passages, e.g., 1.. 51, Mk. 12:38, 1 Cor. 13, 11 Cor. 12, Gal. 5. Eph. 3:19, Eph. 6, Phil. 3, 1 John 4. A favorite quotation was R. Baxter's hymn:

Lord, it belongs not to my care Whether I die or live;
To love and serve Thee is my share,
And that Thy guard must give.

In 1875 he remarked, "I think that men of science as well as other men need to learn from Christ, and I think that Christians whose minds are scientific are bound to study science that this view of the glory of God may be as extensive as their being is capable of."

In his early twenties he had noted, "Happy is the man who can recognize in the work of Today a connected portion of the work of life, and an embodiment of the work of Eternity." Finally, at twenty-seven he had concluded, "The more we enter into Christ's work He will have more room to work His work in us. For He always desires us to be one with us. Our worship is social, and Christ will be where two or three are gathered together in His name."