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Faraday, Maxwell – Scientific Heroes Remembered

faraday, maxwell
Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell

Take a moment to reflect on the 19th Century giants Faraday, Maxwell. These wonderful scientists laid the foundations for modern physics and our radio hobbies. 

We take radio waves for granted. Being surrounded by electromagnetic fields is something we take for granted. The electromagnetic spectrum stretches from power lines, radio, microwaves, light and cosmic rays. Fields travel through space-time as waves from the very small atomic level to the entire universe.

Our understanding of EM owes much to the Faraday, Maxwell combination. My friend Gord recently drew my attention to a wonderful book called: Faraday, Maxwell and the Electromagnetic Field: How Two Men Revolutionized Physics. Written in 2014 by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon, this short book covers the life and discoveries of these early scientists.

“It is almost impossible to overstate the scale of Faraday and Maxwell’s achievement in bringing the concept of the electromagnetic field into human thought. It united electricity, magnetism, and light into a single, compact theory; changed our way of life by bringing us radio, television, radar, satellite navigation, and mobile phones; inspired Einstein’s special theory of relativity; and introduced the idea of field equations, which became the standard form used by today’s physicists to model what goes on in the vastness of space and inside atoms.”

These two men are a study in contrasts between experimental and theoretical physics. Michael Faraday was the consummate experimenter who possessed only a rudimentary grasp of mathematics. James Clerk Maxwell, on the other hand, was a mathematician and creative thinker, able to synthesize theory.

Both men were leading natural philosophers of the mid 19th Century.

Faraday, Maxwell provide foundations for modern physics

Faraday came first. In the early 1830’s he demonstrated the relationship between electricity and magnetism. He came up with experimental findings and hypothesis about EM fields, providing tons of material for others to build on. One such builder was James Clerk Maxwell, who worked Michael’s findings into a theory. He published his famous equations in 1865.

Another twenty years passed before Oliver Heaviside came up with simplifications to reduce Maxwell’s 20 equations down to four. Shortly thereafter, Hertz confirmed the existence of EM waves in accordance with the equations. At the practical level, Hertz’s work soon led to wireless telegraphy.  In the following century, Einstein leaned on Maxwell’s theory to build special relativity.

Faraday had little formal training but obtained great mentoring from leading scientists. He trained himself to be a great presenter and his lectures were always in demand. Next to Newton, Maxwell was the great unifier, bringing together electricity, magnetism and light. His seminal works also included color and the techniques needed to reproduce color vision.

I invite you to read the book. You might also enjoy these short documentaries about Faraday and Maxwell.

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