Review of 'JAMES CLERK MAXWELL: Faith, Church and Physics' by Bruce Ritchie

Review by William W C Scott © 6th April 2024

From every point of view, this must be one of the best books ever published by Hansel Press. It is 474 pages, 31 chapters, well structured, with an index and a bibliography full of papers, 15 of them by T.F. Torrance. There are footnotes on nearly every page, the ideal place for them. Comparing it to the earlier biography by Ivan Tolstoy, this is 184 pages, each of them containing about half the content of Ritchie's. There is no comparison: Tolstoy's is a trifling morsel. Neither book deals with the mathematics of the various Maxwell Equations, which nowadays appear in vector form, involve differential operators like Del which Ritchie reasonably gives Heaviside credit for the excellence of the vector, Del cross product form which has reduced them to four very simple equations. However, the Del differential Operator was a creation of Sir William Hamilton, Maxwell's professor at Edinburgh before he went on to Trinity, Cambridge for the Tripos in 1854.

Maxwell's faith was deep, ingrained one might even say: it made of him a very kind, quiet, gentle person - no sort of dominating, energy-projecting professor. Yet his view of science in no way dependent upon it. The discovery of Truth was paramount there. 'What is the go of it? Maxwell's eternal question since childhood. A question to be answered after only the most rigorous investigation. Thus, the digression into Torrance's view that Maxwell's faith was somehow the source of his scientific discoveries is inept. Maxwell would not have thought it relevant at all. Science was an unrelated domain he was developing himself, with the aid of his fellows Peter Guthrie Tait, William Thomson (later 'Sir' and 'Lord Kelvin'), known to each other as T, T' and dp/dt, this last being the nickname of Maxwell. This triumvirate of Scots were the best three mathematicial-physicists in the country at that time. Tait, (Peterhouse) senior wrangler in 1852, William Thomson (Peterhouse) second wrangler in 1845 and James Clerk Maxwell (Peterhouse and Trinity) second wrangler in 1854. (The other senior wranglers often never heard of again)

Thomson was Smith's prizeman in 1846 and appointed Professor of Nat Phil at Glasgow, at the age of 22. Tait became Professor of Nat Phil at Edinburgh in 1860. Maxwell (also Smith's Prizeman) became Professor at Marischal College, Aberdeen until the two colleges there were amalgamated after which he left for London where he was awarded the Adams Prize for his paper on Saturn's Rings. After his Tripos exams, Thomson left for France where he met both Liouville and Regnault and learnt from them the fundamental importance in an experimenter of the pre-eminence of numbers which had to be got to the highest degree of accuracy. A basic truth of science, which precluded everything else, including personal faith. This would have been transmitted immediately to his juniors, Tait and Maxwell, with whom he was in constant touch. Thomson was admitted FRS in 1852, Maxwell in 1861. Tait never made it (despite being Senior Wrangler aged 20). Thomson was knighted in 1866 by accolade conferred by Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle and ennobled Lord Kelvin {Baron Kelvin of Largs} in 1892.

Note: Tait, when Professor of Nat Phil at Edinburgh, lived at 17 Drummond Place. Over 100 years later, in my third year attending the Tait Institute of Mathematical-Physics under Professor Kemmer, I lived at 18 Drummond Place, unaware of the distinguished occupant next door a century before. Most mornings I would see Compton McKenzie taking his stroll around the square before returning to his double house, full of books, on the opposite corner in which, far into the night, he often entertained his literary friends to conversation with old John Barleycorn. Twenty yards to my left, every evening, I would see my tutor Peter Higgs, seated at his window on the first floor, working on the boson he predicted for his Nobel prize awarded with another in 2013.

The Maxwell Equations are listed in modern form in this book: 4 of them. Maxwell's own version contains no vectors, about twenty, at first, then reduced to twelve. The modern form is much simpler to manage, once the notation is understood. It is a pity that there is no explanation of the equations. In a book as good as this, it is a fault. Having proved them for my ablest students, some of them barely out of short trousers, I know that their power can be grasped completely. There is great excitement at this realisation.

© William W. C. Scott