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Quantum mechanics

Quantum mechanics

Hidden genius

01 Dec 2006

Why is James Clerk Maxwell such an obscure figure in the eyes of the public?

As most readers will know, 2005 was the International Year of Physics, marking the centenary of Einstein’s five great papers on relativity, light and atoms. Far fewer will realize that we are now drawing to the end of “Maxwell Year”, which has been organized to recognize the scientific genius of James Clerk Maxwell, who was born 175 years ago. One reason for Maxwell’s obscurity (see “James Clerk Maxwell: a force for physics”) is that he died in 1879 aged just 48, and so did not live to see the impact of his work on relativity and quantum mechanics. In contrast, Einstein benefited from being thrown into the media spotlight when general relativity was dramatically confirmed by Eddington in 1919. Had Maxwell lived to see the day in December 1901 when Guiglielmo Marconi made the first transatlantic radio communication – using the very waves that Maxwell’s equations had predicted – perhaps his fame would be far greater today.

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