Science Spirituality

Maxwell – in search of Science and Faith

Let me borrow the well-popular statement ‘Between Newton and Einstein, Maxwell Stands Alone’. This statement summarizes the time line of more than two centuries, from Sir Isaac Newton (1687) to Albert Einstein (1905-16), and a paradigm shift in the evaluation process of fundamental concepts of classical and modern Physics where the contribution of only the James Clerk Maxwell (1865) is accorded a status comparable to that of the Newton and the Einstein.

Einstein endorses to Maxwell by stating that “before Maxwell, Physical Reality, in so far as it was to represent the process of nature, was thought of as consisting in material particles… Since Maxwell’s time, Physical Reality has been thought of as represented by continuous fields, governed by partial differential equations, and not capable of any mechanical interpretation. This change in the conception of Reality is the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.”

James Clerk Maxwell

I stood on Maxwell’s shoulders: Einstein

At the age of 34, Maxwell made a remarkable contribution through his research paper entitled “A dynamical theory of the Electromagnetic Field” published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1865, where he expressed the equations governing all electric and magnetic phenomena. In the electromagnetic theory of waves, Maxwell calculated the propagation speed of the wave and compared with the velocity of the light. He showed that the speed of these waves was, to within experimental error, equal to the known speed of light. Maxwell reiterated that “it seems we have strong reason to conclude that light itself (including radiant heat and other radiations if any) is an electromagnetic disturbance in the form of waves propagated”. This conclusion was the most important event of the nineteenth century in the physical science; consequently, the greatest advancement in scientific knowledge since Newtons’ Principia. According to Freeman J. Dyson, Professor Emeritus, Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton, USA: “if we include the Biological science and Physical science, Maxwells’ paper was second only to Darwins’ origin of species.

Photograph of Albert Einstein and Bela Kornitzer with Maxwell picture on the wall.

On the contrary, the theory of electromagnetism was largely ignored by the eminent Physicists of his time for more than twenty years because they did not believe that electromagnetic waves travel with finite speed. Also, Maxwell’s electro-magnetic wave theory was not in line with the popular Galileo’s and Newtonian concepts of mechanics rather it opposes the concept. For example, Galileo and Newton had said that, in order to change (transform) between the viewpoints of two different observers (viewing the same event but the second observer travelling with a constant speed and direction relative to a stationary observer) the speed of the moving observer would need to be added to the speed of a body as measured by the moving observer. Thus, according to Galileo and Newton, ‘faster than light’ speeds were perfectly possible. Maxwell’s equations, on the other hand, gave an identical value for the speed of electromagnetic waves, no matter what the relative speeds of the observers. These opposing theories could not both be right. Some twenty two years later, in 1887, Hertz demonstrated, in the laboratory, such electromagnetic waves being transmitted, received and having all the properties – reflection, refraction, interference – of waves travelling at a finite speed. This was the most remarkable demonstration of 19th century experimental physics. Furthermore, in 1905, ‘On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies’, Einstein showed his debt to Maxwell by demonstrating that Maxwell’s equations transformed correctly between two observers, provided the Lorentz transformation was used to change the viewpoint between the observers. It was such considerations that enabled Einstein to state confidently that Nature behaved according to the Lorentz’s transformation and not according to the simpler Galileo/Newton transformation. Maxwell’s equations, without any alteration, are compatible with Einstein’s ‘Theory of Special Relativity’ whereas Newton’s equations had to be changed. Prof. Dyson, therefore, writes in an easy “…instead of thinking of mechanical objects as primary and electromagnetic stresses as secondary consequences, you must think of the electromagnetic field as primary and mechanical forces as secondary. The idea that the primary constituents of the universe are fields did not come easily to the physicists of Maxwell’s generation. Fields are an abstract concept, far removed from the familiar world of things and forces.”

Prof. Peter Higgs (Physics Noble Laureate, 2013) has written an article entitled “Maxwell’s Equation: A tip of an Iceberg” in Newsletter of the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation, Issue No.7, spring 2016. In this article, Prof. Higgs explains how the Maxwell’s equation was the basis of foundation of many modern Physics theories and applications of nineteenth century far greater than its immediate achievement in explaining and unifying the phenomena of electricity and magnetism. For example, it is the prototype of Einstein’s theory of relativity, for quantum mechanics, for Yang-Mills theory of generalised gauge invariance, and for the unified theory of fields and particles that is known as Standard Model of particle physics. Maxwell’s words “…including radiant heat and other radiations if any” have proved prescient and have been thoroughly vindicated by the progressive discovery of the vast spectrum of electromagnetic radiation of different wavelengths – radio waves, microwaves, infrared light, visible light, ultraviolet light, x-rays and gamma rays. Electromagnetic waves now provide the means for modern devices, for example Radio & TV, NMR, LASER, RADAR, GPS, WiFi, Mobile Phone and so on.

Modesty of Maxwell, not a Virtue for Science

There is a saying that ‘Intelligence could be more brilliant within Modesty’ which very well matches with the character of Maxwell because he was not only very intelligent and exceptionally brilliant but also highly modest person. Here is why? In the essay entitled “Why Maxwell’s theory was so hard to understand?” Prof. Dyson from Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton, USA” writes Maxwell and Mendel were both excessively modest. Mendel’s modesty set back the progress of biology by fifty years. Maxwell’s modesty set back the progress of Physics by twenty years. Prof. Dyson refers to the Presidential address of Maxwell at Liverpool in 1870 which was later published in journal Nature. Unlike his contemporary Gregor Mendal, a monk working in an obscure monastery garden in Bohemia, Maxwell was a famous Professor, Director of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, a leading figure in the British Scientific community and he was so absurdly modest that he has not utilized the opportunity provided by the presidential platform to proclaim to the world the importance of the discoveries that he had made five years earlier. Maxwell started his presidential address by praising many other ancient and contemporary theories and only end of his talk did Maxwell briefly mention his theory of electromagnetism. He mentioned it in a half-hearted manner, using the phrase “….another theory of electricity which I prefer….” therefore listeners have not have taken electromagnetic theory in notice the way it should have been considered. Prof. Dyson further writes that modesty is not always a virtue. If Maxwell had had attitude like Newton he would have made sure his work was not ignored. But it was unfortunate that he did not begin his presidential address in Liverpool with words like those Newton used to introduce the third volume of his Principia Mathematica, “It remains that, from the same principles, I now demonstrate the frame of the system of the world”. Newton did not prefer to his law of universal gravitation as “…..another theory of gravitation which I prefer….” Maxwell was a great scientist as Newton and a far more agreeable character. Once when Einstein made his first visit to the U.K., the Press asked him if he had stood on the shoulders of Newton. Einstein replied that, “statement is not quite right, I stood on Maxwell’s shoulders”.

Maxwell in Depth, Leading Faith over Science

Maxwell was born in a rich Scottish family who was practitioner of Christianity as its religion. His family culture and his inborn interest in religion have lead him to have extensive and minute knowledge of the scriptures from his childhood. Therefore, Maxwell has developed strong faith on spirituality and God. Prof. Ian H. Hutchinson, a professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at Plasma Science and Fusion Center of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA illustrates in his personal blog on “Science, Culture and Christianity” that there is plenty of evidence, especially from his (Maxwell) undergraduate days, that he did deeply examine his faith. Certainly, his knowledge of the Bible was remarkable, so his confidence in the Scriptures was not based on ignorance. Prof. Hutchinson cites memories of G. W. H. Tayler, a classmate of Maxwell, when Maxwell has spent some time at the Suffolk home of the Rev C. B. Tayler; uncle of G. W. H. Tayler. There Maxwell became seriously ill. The Taylers nursed him back to health over a period of several weeks. Maxwell was very moved by the care and kindness shown him by the Taylers. His biographer, Lewis Campbell, said that G. W. H. Tayler tells – It was then that my uncle’s conversation seemed to make such a deep impression on his mind. He had always been a regular attendant at the services of God’s house. … Also he had thought and read much on religious subjects. But at this time (as it appears from his own account of the matter) his religious views were greatly deepened and strengthened. On his return to Cambridge, Maxwell writes to his recent host a chatty and affectionate letter including the following testimony … I have the capacity of being more wicked than any example that man could set me, and … if I escape, it is only by God’s grace helping me to get rid of myself, partially in science, more completely in society, – but not perfectly except by committing myself to God … It is worthy to notice how Maxwell identifies his science as part of God’s plan for this salvation.

Maxwell has become a public figure far before his scientific achievements have been recognized by the scientific community due to his views and discussion in relating the Science and Faith. Maxwell, however, penetratingly criticizes the misuse of partial scientific knowledge to interpret scripture. Instead, his expressed concern is that ill-judged linking of specific scientific theories with religion will be an impediment to the growth of science. And his emphasis, in relating science and faith, is in science’s enhancement of our wonder at the glory of creation.

Prof. Hutchinson further writes, during the chronic illness of Maxwell, at the later stage of his life he told to his Cambridge colleague – I have been thinking how very gently I have always been dealt with. I have never had a violent shove all my life. The only desire which I can have is like David to serve my own generation by the will of God, and then fall asleep. 

In a book entitled “Scientists of Faith”, Dan Graves writes that Maxwell was noted for his extemporaneous prayers, of which we have at least one recorded example: “Teach us to study the works of Thy hands that we may subdue the earth to our use and strengthen our reason for Thy service”. Maxwell was having a profound mystical strain in him, although he spoke little of it publicly.

Notes and References:
1. Lord Rees, “Is the Cosmos teeming with life or is life on Earth unique?” Newsletter of the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation, Issue No.1 Spring 2012.
3. Freeman J. Dyson, Why Maxwell’s theory was so hard to understand?, Professor Emeritus, Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton, USA
4. Dan Graves, Scientists of Faith, Kregel Resources: Grand Rapids, MI (1996), pages 150-153:

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