JAMES CLERK MAXWELL: A NOTE
Tim Healy, Santa Clara University
In 1962 Thomas Kuhn wrote a classic treatise on the philosophy of science titled "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions". The central theme is that science works by agreeing on world views or paradigms which describe the laws, the rules and the assumptions of science. When a scientific paradigm fails to account for new observations, there needs to be a "paradigm shift" to a new view of the world. In general paradigm shifts take quite a while to occur, primarily because the existing paradigm is entrenched in the scientists of the day. Typically, young newcomers, who do not have as strong a commitment to the paradigm as their elders, take up a new idea and try to accomplish a paradigm shift. This may take as long as a generation - perhaps 20 to 25 years - until the previous generation has left the scene.
The story of the paradigm shift associated with the work of James Clerk Maxwell exemplifies this effect very well. The story is told in an outstanding recent book (1). A brief timeline sumarizes what happened:
It is indeed a curious footnote to the history of science that Maxwell didn't live long enough to see Maxwell's Equations, as we know them today.
- 1873: Maxwell's treatise is published
- 1873 - 1885: Maxwell's work is largely ignored except by a small group of workers
- 1879: Maxwell dies
- 1884: Oliver Heaviside expresses Maxwell's Equations as we know them today
- 1888: Maxwell's wave theory verified by Hertz
- 1890's: Maxwell's theory begins to gain wide acceptance
- 1996: We write Maxwell's equations as if they were handed down in stone
(1) B.J. Hunt, "The Maxwellians", Cornell University Press, Ithica, NY, 1991
(now available in paperback)
Persons interested in commenting on this page are invited to contact: firstname.lastname@example.org