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Getting into the mind of Maxwell

Malcolm Longair on the beauty of Maxwell's equations
Published 150 years ago, Maxwell's paper on electricity and magnetism remains hugely profound
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By Matin Durrani

In case you’ve forgotten – and shame on you if you have – 2015 has been designated the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies (IYL 2015).  There’s been loads going on all over the globe, which you can follow on the excellent IYL 2015 blog, and we at Physics World have been in on the act too don’t forget. Our March 2015 issue was devoted to light and we also produced a digital-only collection of our 10 best features on light, which you can read free here.

Over at the University of Bristol in the UK, the physics department has been busy too and on Friday played host to a wonderful little meeting entitled “Focus on Light”. The conference was supported by three specialist groups of the Institute of Physics (which publishes Physics World) – those devoted to the history of physicsquantum electronics and photonics, and quantum optics, quantum information and quantum control – as well as the Institute’s south-west branch.

I was able to stay only for the morning session, which saw some great talks on how some animals create light through iridescence (Pete Vukusic), on the history of lighting technology (Neil Dennis-Purves), and the battle over the wave and particle views of light (Peter Rowlands). But for me the astrophysicist Malcolm Longair from the University of Cambridge stole the show, with a wonderful lecture on the power and beauty of Maxwell’s great paper of 1865, which is one of the reasons we are celebrating light this year.

That paper, of course, saw Maxwell unify our thinking about electricity and magnetism and led him to realize, to his amazement, that electrical and magnetic disturbances travel  at the speed of light, which had recently been measured to great accuracy by Léon Focault and others.

Longair has recently published a paper in which he recasts Maxwell’s 1865 paper using SI units and modern notation. In doing so, Longair found himself getting right inside the mind of Maxwell and becoming more enraptured than ever before of someone he puts on a par with Newton and Einstein.

“I love intellectual beauty in physics and Maxwell’s paper of 1865 was intellectual beauty of the highest standards,” Longair told delegates on Friday.

You can hear more about why Longair is so enamoured by Maxwell’s equations in the audio clip above. Meanwhile, don’t forget to check out our collection of top features on light if you want more about the power and beauty of light as we reach the mid-way point of IYL 2015.

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  1. M. Asghar

    The Maxwell’s EM equations are not only beautiful, but the source of all of the modern physics that operates under the different fundamental interactions: strong, weak and gravity, via its rule of “local gauge invariance”.

  2. rajpal

    It is 150 years since James Clerk Maxwell’s work on electromagnetism.
    Invariance of the speed of light in free space.

  3. Rinat M.Nugayev

    Maxwell did not prove that the speed of light
    is equal to c. Using rather dubious ether model
    he disclosed that the speed of light is somewhat
    near c. However his calculations included two
    significant mistakes – see Daniel Siegel’s book.

  4. When I last saw Prof. Longair he was the same shape as usual, not horizontally stretched as in the photo at the beginning of this article. It looks like this photo has the same source as that on his Wikipedia page, which is 133×160 pixels, unlike this one which is square (80×80).

  5. Looking into it, I see that someone created a specially distorted jpg file,, for this page to link to! Sorry to go on about this, but I do find distorted pictures or videos irritating. It’s like with the people who make bus passes — you send them a passport dimensioned photo as per their specific request, and by the time it gets to your bus pass it has been squashed into a square shape just like this one!

  6. Matin Durrani

    Malcolm has now been resized to his correct dimensions.

  7. Trackback: Blog -

  8. antonio carlos motta

    Is interesting that the equations of maxwell that are that source of special theory of relativity for the deformations of the lorentz’s invariamce generate the constancy of speed of light,showing that the left handed and right handed systems are asymmetrics to quamtum level is the violation of cp for particles and antiparticles,these non invariamce demonstrate the time dilatation and the contraction of spacethen the equations of maxwell based in then qiaternions,with the property non commutative,that permit the connection time with the space(rotations) henerating the spacetime continuos woth the variationsbof time is linkednto the gradient

  9. Trackback: Maxwell’s Torch arrives in Birmingham to mark International Year of Light – MyPhysNet


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