Science

Geek's Guide

Saturn's rings, radio waves ... poetry? At home with Scotland's Mr Physics

James Clerk Maxwell's house

By Bill Ray

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Geek's Guide to Britain Say the the word “radio” and the mind goes to Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian emigrant whose work on the watershed of Cornwall and the Atlantic Ocean helped turn wireless into the defining medium of the early 20th Century.

But radio wasn’t invented by Marconi – or any one person. Rather, it was discovered, and the man who drove that discovery was James Clerk Maxwell.

Maxwell is essential to physics as we understand it today. He didn't invent radio waves, but he did posit their existence. Without that leap of logic we wouldn't be wandering through the electro-smog in which we now delight.

Yet Maxwell’s contributions are not confined to radio; his theories on the rings of Saturn were born out by 20th Century science; he produced the first colour photo; and he founded and helped build Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory in 1879 where he was the inaugural Cavendish Professor of Physics. The laboratory has since produced 29 Nobel Prize winners.

Oh, he was a poet, too. This was the 1800s, after all, when a chap with a beard could really make something of himself.

Maxwell’s birthplace and early home was a terrace house in Edinburgh New Town, built for James' father in 1820. New Town is a marvel of 19th Century civic thinking, designed to alleviate overcrowding that marries space with elegant architecture.

These days Maxwell's house belongs to the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation, which managed to buy it in 1993. If you want to see the house in person then you'll have to make an appointment, but there's a virtual tour and those interested in learning more about James Maxwell can take an Edinburgh walking tour covering his life.

James was born at 14 India Street on 31 July, 1831, though he only lived there for a couple of years before his family relocated to their 1,500-acre country estate in Galloway. When he was ten he moved back to attend the Edinburgh Academy but lived with his aunt, who resided around the corner from the James' family home – which was, at that point, being let out. In fact, 14 India Street was let to a succession of tenants; James inherited it on his father's death but never lived there again. He went on to study physics at Edinburgh and then at Cambridge University.

An unremarkable terrace house? Birth place of James Clerk Maxwell Photo credit: Bill Ray

In 1977 the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation was established to remind the world just what a marvelous chap he was, and in 1993 the opportunity arose to acquire the house in which he was born. That acquisition was largely made possible thanks to one Sydney Ross, who was relocating to the US and took the opportunity to leave some money behind – but also owed much to the increasing use of email, which had devalued local properties.

Being situated about a 30-minute stroll from the courts, the houses had attracted lawyers, whose briefs were delivered by hand. Email enabled them to move further away and so burst a minor property bubble. Professor David Ritchie, director of the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation, was then able to move in and grab the place for the nation.

If you want to look around the house then you need to get in touch with the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation, who will fix a time and day for Professor Ritchie to show you around.

Professor Richie with James' zoetrope and portrait.
Photo credit: Bill Ray

Once bought, the house had to be extensively restored to a state Maxwell would recognise: the dark colours of the late Victorian era were stripped back and door frames returned to their former glory, and various sponsors and donors stumped up the cash to make the place look respectable while others contributed art and objects to furnish a small museum.

Maxwell might be best known for his equations covering the behaviour of an electromagnetic charge – but that was by no means his only contribution to the world. In the dining room we can see the world's first colour photograph. Maxwell set out to prove that three pictures shot through different filters could be combined to create a single image. The image of a tartan ribbon wasn't perfect, but it did work, and thus set in stone the concept of "RGB" – red, green and blue – with which we're so familiar today.

Not black-and-white thinking

Maxwell is most often pictured holding a colour wheel, a disk of card with sections of different colours that can be spun to create white. It seems obvious now, but at the time this was a significant breakthrough, and various versions of the disk are scattered around the room.

We can also see his first presented paper, on the rendering of mathematically correct ovals, written in his own hand. This was presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1846, but not by Maxwell who (at 14) was considered too young to be standing in front of such an august audience.

Inside India street Photo credit: James Clerk Maxwell Foundation

He was 26 when he proved, mathematically, that the rings of Saturn could be neither solid nor made of liquid. The only form that would allow stable rotation was a collection of small rocks, which from Earth assumed the form of a solid ring.

Yet the breakthrough for which he is best known is linking light to electromagnetism, and we can see his presentation on that subject too. The breakthrough was his measurement of the speed of electromagnetism, which came too close to the speed of light to be coincidental, leading to the inevitable conclusion that the two things were one and the same.

According to Maxwell: "The velocity of transverse undulations in our hypothetical medium… agrees so exactly with the velocity of light… that we can scarcely avoid the inference that light consists in the transverse undulations of the same medium which is the cause of electric and magnetic phenomena."

From there we have the electromagnetic spectrum, and radio waves, and everything else. Maxwell fits squarely between Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, and deserves to be as well known as either of them.

It would be years before the implications of his discovery would be understood, and he spent the next few decades refining it. It was more than a century before the Voyager spacecraft confirmed his proof about the rings of Saturn, and we're still sorting out whether his electromagnetic phenomena are particles or waves (spoiler: they're both), so this was a man well ahead of his time.

But mathematicians can do that: while physicists have to spend billions building colliders, and chemists obtain rare samples to feed their alchemy, the mathematician can predict how things have to be. Maxwell was a poet, and as one of his many works explains:

Of the Philosophic Spirit

Richly may my son inherit;

As for Poetry, inter it

With the myths of other days.

Cut the thing entirely, lest yon

College Don should put the question,

Why not stick to what you're best on?

Mathematics always pays.

Not that he had any sons, or daughters. Denied permission to marry his first cousin he ended up with the boss's (the principal's) daughter while at Marischal College, Aberdeen. Katherine Dewar was, by all accounts, a devoted wife who helped him with his experiments, but the couple didn't reproduce.

Maxwell himself was almost certainly born in the upstairs bedroom at 14 India Street, now known as the "Motorola Room". The room is largely devoid of furniture now but would have been the master bedroom when the house was occupied by John Clerk Maxwell and his wife.

In keeping with the fashion of the time the bedroom has double doors into an upstairs drawing room, now available for scientific seminars and the like. When guests were expected the bed could be packed away and the doors, which are decorated with eagles to celebrate the recent victory at Waterloo, would be opened to create a single room.

The next floor isn't open to visitors as it's rented to an HR outsourcing company. The stairs are flanked with engravings of the scientists onto whose shoulders Maxwell climbed, as this BBC documentary notes.

The combined colour plates resemble tartan

Beyond the house itself there is the walking tour, which doesn't start at his place of birth but at St John's Church where the family spent their Sunday afternoons. Behind the church there's a small parade of socially idealistic shops and a cheerful rustic cafe supplying victuals to those tracing the route.

The James Clerk Maxwell Foundation provides a PDF with a map and description of the three-mile walk, which includes various sites associated with the great man. There is also a smartphone app, which comes with a quiz and directions, but as the directions seemed inadequate and the quiz answers didn't match information on the foundation's own web site, we decided to stick with a print out.

'Dafty' strikes back

That route took us past 14 India Street and on to 31 Herriot Row, from where James Clerk Maxwell's aunt sent him off to school dressed as a country bumpkin, much to the amusement of the other pupils who wasted no time in labelling him "dafty" - which doesn't seem to have bothered him as much as it might have. The last laugh goes to James, as in 2006 the school spent £4.6m building the impressive James Clerk Maxwell Science Centre, where those who can afford it can get a decent education.

Other than that additional building the school remains surprisingly unchanged, from the front at least, which makes sense given its continuing mission to educate the gentry of Scotland's capital city.

The James Clerk Maxwell Monument. Photo credit: Kim Traynor

From the school it's a bit of a climb back to Heriot Row, but fortunately there's Clerk's Bar in the way. The pub opened 20 years after Maxwell died, and it's spelled differently, but the call of a decent pint is enough to smooth over a few historical anomalies.

From there we continue up to George Street, where a statue of the great man stands (or, rather, sits) looking down the road. Clasped in his hands is the colour wheel that could be spun to demonstrate how white light is a combination of everything else, while beneath him sits Toby – the dog with whom Maxwell shared so many of his ideas before testing them on humans.

The statue is impressive, though his equations are relegated to a small plate on the back, and the friezes that adorn the sides are a little impenetrable without footnotes.

Enigmatic scientific details of the Maxwell Monument. Photo credit: Bill Ray

That's Apollo on the left, representing light. He's been shot by Eros, who's representing gravity, which is why he's smaller than the others (gravity being the weakest force, though still able to influence light). The chap holding the rubber sheet is a suspiciously Greek-looking Einstein showing off his theory of relativity, while the beggar represents the end of classical science and the warrior relaxing as the battle is done.

Einstein might not have favoured the toga in real life but he was a big fan of James Clerk Maxwell. According to the man himself: "The special theory of relativity owes its origins to Maxwell's equations of the electromagnetic field."

Visiting the house is a great experience, though perhaps for the more dedicated fan (or group) who can make forward arrangements. To see the notebooks and tools used by the man himself is an inspiration, and scientific groups in Edinburgh should certainly consider the seminar room for meetings or talks.

The walking tour is fun, taking one through Edinburgh's (New Town) residential areas which might not be part of the usual tourist trail. The Royal Society of Edinburgh's impressive home might now be a Lakeland (the society has moved up the road), but walking around the route one gets a feel for how the city once was, and how James Clerk Maxwell would have known it.

If you’ve an hour or two to kill in Edinburgh then take the walking tour, and if you're a physicist who wants to know more about how physics came to be then get a couple of similarly minded mates together and make an appointment to see the house where so much of it started. ®

GPS

55.955279, -3.205601

Post code

EH3 6EZ

Getting there

14 India Street is a 20-minute walk from Edinburgh Waverley station. West along Princes Street then turn right onto Castle Street crossing George Street and Queen Street to turn left onto Heriot Row and then India Street is on the right. A stone plaque marks the wall of number 14.

The walking tour starts at St John's Church, which can be found by emerging from Edinburgh Waverley station and taking a left to walk east along Princes Street for just under a mile, when the church will be visible on the left.

Entrance

There is no charge for viewing the house, but an appointment must be made with the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation.

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