2011 is awash with anniversaries of notable events from the annals of the physical sciences. […] Worthy intellectual accomplishments, all. Yet they pale in comparison with Maxwell’s. This is not just because, unlike a lot of subsequent theoretical advances, his insight has already yielded a century’s worth of tangible results, from radio to mobile phones. (Only a century because it took scientists several decades before they grasped the theory’s full significance and put it into practice.) Nor is it because he championed the abstract idea of fields, a fecund notion that underpins much of modern physics.
No, Maxwell’s greatness lies elsewhere still. He showed that nature ought not to be taken at face value, and that she can be cajoled into revealing her hidden charms so long as the entreaties are whispered in mathematical verse. In doing so he paved the way for the pursuit of physicists’ holy grail: the grand unified theory, a set of equations which would explain all there is to know about physical reality. As tends to be the case with grails, this one, too, may prove unattainable.
Unless there are inherent limits on human understanding—itself an unfathomable premise—there will always be more apparently disparate phenomena to explain at one fell swoop.
Maxwell remains the great unsung hero of human progress, the physicists’ physicist whose name means little to those without a scientific bent. His life’s work, which also includes remarkable contributions to thermodynamics (not to mention taking the world’s first colour photograph, also 150 years ago) is among the most enduring scientific legacies of all time, on a par with those of his more widely acclaimed peers, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.
It deserves to be trumpeted.