This is part of an on-going series of articles about largely unknown Christians who had an enormous impact on society by faithfully living out their biblical worldview in various areas of life.
If asked about the most important physicists of all time, most people will probably only be able to name Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton; they may or may not think of Werner Heisenberg. The name James Clerk Maxwell will probably occur to very few, yet his work was foundational for many of the most important discoveries of twentieth century physics.
Maxwell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, to John Clerk and Frances Cay. Originally named simply “James Clerk,” the surname “Maxwell” was added after his family inherited a 1500 acre estate in Middlebie, Kirkcudbrightshire, from a relative in the Maxwell family, who were members of the peerage. While James was still young, the family moved to Glenlair House, which they had built on their estate.
Young James exhibited strong curiosity about everything around him, and after a few unsuccessful attempts at education in Middlebie he began his formal schooling at the Edinburgh academy at the age of 10. He was considered something of a rustic, and his academic talents weren’t recognized (despite earning the Bible prize in his second year) until age 13, when he won the mathematics medal as well as first prize in both English and poetry.
The next year, Maxwell wrote his first scientific paper, Oval Curves, which discussed using a string to produce various kinds of curves with two foci. Descartes had done something similar, but Maxwell simplified the process.
Maxwell entered the University of Edinburgh at age 16. He didn’t find his studies particularly demanding, so in his spare time he worked with self-constructed chemical, electric, and magnetic devices, and especially with polarized prisms and gelatins. In the process he discovered photoelasticity, a means for determining stress distribution in elastic, transparent materials. This work led to two more scientific papers which he completed at age 18.
In 1850, Maxwell entered the University of Cambridge, graduating from Trinity College in 1854 with a degree in mathematics as one of the top two mathematicians at the University. Upon graduation, he presented his first purely mathematical paper. He remained at Cambridge as a research student, where he made important discoveries about color and light.
Although he was made a Fellow of Trinity in 1855, he instead accepted a professorship at Marischal College in Aberdeen. While there, he won the Adams Prize from King’s College Cambridge for working out a convincing explanation of the nature of Saturn’s rings. He demonstrated that they could be neither solids nor liquids, and made a convincing argument that they were made of smaller particles each orbiting Saturn independently. This was confirmed by Voyager’s flybys of Saturn in the 1980s. At the time, the paper was considered the finest example of an application of mathematics to physics in history.
In 1860, Marischal College merged with King’s College Aberdeen to form the University of Aberdeen. Maxwell lost out on the position to the professor of Natural Philosophy from King’s, and so he took a position at King’s College London.
Although he was only at King’s College London for five years (aged 29-34!), Maxwell’s work there changed physics. Already, when he was at Marischal, he had figured out that electrical fields and magnetism were related phenomena; while at King’s, he calculated the speed of the propagation of electromagnetic waves and realized it was essentially the same as the speed of light. From there, he showed that light was a form of electromagnetic radiation. He then worked out a number of key concepts describing electromagnetic behavior. His work was later simplified into four partial differential equations known today simply as Maxwell’s Equations, and helped pave the way for Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity.
Along with working on electromagnetism, he produced the first light fast color photograph in 1861, did important work on gases, and proposed a system for defining physical quantities known today as dimensional analysis.
In 1865, Maxwell resigned from King’s College and returned to Glenlair. He continued his research, and in 1871 was named the first Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge. He supervised the building and equipping of the laboratory as well as editing the papers of Henry Cavendish, who had himself done important research into electricity as well as calculating the mean density of the earth and studying the composition of water.
Even while doing all this work in mathematics and physics, Maxwell maintained his interests in literature. He had a particular love of Scottish poetry, and even wrote poems of his own. Some of these were parodies inspired by physics. His best known is “Rigid Body Sings,” which was based on Robert Burns’ “Coming through the Rye.” It begins:
Gin a body meet a body
Flyin’ through the air.
Gin a body hit a body,
Will it fly? And where?
He apparently used to sing this, accompanying himself on guitar.
Another aspect of Maxwell’s life that is not often discussed was his religious faith. Maxwell’s father was a Presbyterian and his mother an Anglican. In 1853, while an undergraduate at Cambridge, he underwent an evangelical conversion. For the rest of his life he was an evangelical Presbyterian, and later in life became an elder in the Scotskirk.
Maxwell’s religion might be seen as incidental to his work, but it was very important to his understanding of science and put him at odds with most of his contemporaries. The dominant philosophy of the day among scientists was positivism, which taught that the only foundation for authoritative knowledge was empirical observation and logical and mathematical analyses of those observations. Positivism further argues that society itself operates according to laws, just like those of nature, and is therefore subject to the same kinds of observation and analysis as the natural world.
To a positivist, intuition, introspection, revelation, etc., are not valid methods to find truth, and thus the authority of the Bible must be rejected, along with claims to miracles and divine interventions of any sort.
To the embarrassment of many scientists today, Maxwell rejected positivism out of hand. To him, the premises of positivism were simultaneously reductionistic and presumptuous. He believed firmly in the Scriptures and had a decidedly mystical streak to his Christian life that he rarely discussed.
To Maxwell, science was a profoundly religious endeavor. He held daily prayers in his household, one of which was, “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.” In 1875, he commented, “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 these quotations we see that Maxwell understood science as an expression of the Cultural Mandate from Genesis 1, and its connection to the Gospel.
Maxwell died at age 48 of stomach cancer, just as his mother had done. He was buried at Parton Kirk in Galloway, Scotland, where he had been an elder. Even with this short life, physicists today consider his work so foundational that they classify him with Einstein and Newton as the most important physicists in history. In advancing the knowledge of God’s world, Maxwell understood himself as performing the work of the Kingdom of Heaven with the expectation that it would lead us to glorify God and fulfill His purposes for us and for the world.
Dr. Glenn Sunshine is a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University and a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.