The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell

written work ed. by W. D. Niven

The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell were published in 1890 as a collection of works by James Clerk Maxwell. The publication was edited by W. D. Niven and printed in a two volume set.





by W. D. Niven

  • Whenever the subject admitted of it he had recourse to diagrams, though his fellow students might solve the question more easily by a train of analysis. Many illustrations of this... might be taken from his writings, but in truth it was only one phase of his mental attitude towards scientific questions, which led him to proceed from one distinct idea to another instead of trusting to symbols and equations.
  • In January, 1854, Maxwell's undergraduate career closed. He was second wrangler, but shared with Dr Routh, who was senior wrangler, the honor of the first Smith's prize. In due course he was elected fellow of Trinity and place on the staff of College Lecturers.
  • During his undergraduateship he had... found time for the study of Electricity. This had already borne fruit and now resulted in the first important memoirs on that subject,—the memoir on Faraday's Lines of Force.
  • The labour of drilling classes composed chiefly of young and untrained lads, in the elements of mechanics and physics, was not the work for which Maxwell was specifically fitted.
  • The most serious demands upon his powers and upon his time were made by his investigations on the Stability of Saturn's Rings. This was the subject chosen by the Examiners for the Adams Prize Essay to be ajudged in 1857, and was advertised in the following terms:—
    "The problem may be treated on the supposition that the system of Rings is exactly or very approximately concentric with Saturn and symmetrically disposed about the plane of his equator and different hypotheses may be made concerning the physical constitution of the Rings. It may be supposed (1) that they are rigid; (2) that they are fluid and in part aeriform; (3) that they consist of masses of matter not materially coherent. The question will be considered to be answered by ascertaining on these hypotheses severally whether the conditions of mechanical stability are satisfied by the mutual attractions and motions of the Planets and the Rings."
    It is desirable that an attempt should also be made to determine on which of the above hypotheses the appearances both of the bright rings and the recently discover dark ring may be most satisfactorily explained; and to indicate any causes to which a change in form such as is supposed from a comparison of modern with the earlier observations to have taken place, may be attributed."

Vol.2 XLIV Introductory Lecture on Experimental Physics

  • The aim of an experiment of illustration is to throw light upon some scientific idea so that the student may be able to grasp it. ...the phenomenon which we wish to observe or to exhibit is brought into prominence, instead of being obscured and entangled among other phenomena, as it would when it occurs in the ordinary course of nature. ...The educational value of such experiments is often inversely proportional to the complexity of the apparatus.
  • The student who uses home made apparatus, which is always going wrong, often learns more than one who has the use of carefully adjusted instruments, to which he is apt to trust and which he dares not take to pieces.
  • Science appears to us with a very different aspect after we have found out that it is not in lecture rooms only, and by means of the electric light projected on a screen, that we may witness physical phenomena, but that we may find illustrations of the highest doctrines of science in games and gymnastics, in travelling by land and by water, in storms of the air and of the sea, and wherever there is matter in motion.
  • This habit of recognising principles amid the endless variety of their action can never degrade our sense of the sublimity of nature or mar our enjoyment of its beauty. On the contrary, it tends to rescue our scientific ideas from that vague condition in which we too often leave them, buried among the other products of a lazy credulity, and to raise them into their proper position among the doctrines in which our faith is so assured, that we are ready at all times to act on them.
  • In experimental researches... the ultimate object is to measure something which we have already seen—to obtain a numerical estimate of some magnitude. ...we must find out which of its features are capable of measurement, and what measurements are required in order to make a complete specification of the phenomenon. We must then make these measurements and deduce from them the result which we require to find.
  • The opinion seems to have got abroad, that in a few years all the great physical constants will have been approximately estimated, and that the only occupation which will then be left to men of science will be to carry on these measurements to another place of decimals. ...But the history of science shews that even during that phase of her progress in which she devotes herself to improving the accuracy of the numerical measurement of quantities with which she has long been familiar, she is preparing the materials for the subjugation of new regions, which would have remained unknown if she had been contented with the rough methods of her early pioneers.
  • The labour of careful measurement has been rewarded by the discovery of new fields of research, and by the development of new scientific ideas... the history of the science of terrestrial magnetism affords us a sufficient example...
  • That celebrated traveller Humboldt was profoundly impressed with the scientific value of a combined effort to be made by the observers of all nations, to obtain accurate measurements of the magnetism of the earth; and we owe it mainly to his enthusiasm for science... that not only private men of science, but the governments of most of the civilised nations... were induced to take part in the enterprise. But the actual working out of the scheme, and the arrangements by which the labours of the observers were so directed as to obtain the best results, we owe to the great mathematician Gauss, working along with Weber, the future founder of the science of electro-magnetic measurement in the magnetic observatory of Göttingen, and aided by the skill of the instrument-maker Leyser. ...Numbers of scientific men joined the Magnetic Union, learned the use of the new instruments and the new methods of reducing the observations; and in every city of Europe... sitting, each in his cold wooden shed, with his eye fixed at the telescope, his ear attentive to the clock, and his pencil recording in his note-book the instantaneous position of the suspended magnet.
  • The increase in the accuracy and completeness of magnetic observations which was obtained by the new method opened up fields of research. [There are] disturbances to which the magnetism of our planet is found to be subject. Some of these disturbances are periodic following the regular courses of the sun and moon. Others are sudden, and are called magnetic storms, but, like the storms of the atmosphere, they have their known seasons of frequency. The last and the most mysterious of these magnetic changes is that secular variation by which the whole character of the earth, as a great magnet, is being slowly modified, while the magnetic poles creep on from century to century along their winding track in the polar regions. We have thus learned that the interior of the earth is subject to the influences of the heavenly bodies...
  • We must not suppose that the inner history of our planet is ended.
  • The new methods of measuring forces were successfully applied by Weber to the numerical determination of all the phenomena of electricity, and very soon afterwards the electric telegraph, by conferring a commercial value on exact numerical measurements, contributed largely to the advancement, as well as to the diffusion of scientific knowledge.
  • It is to Gauss, to the Magnetic Union, and to magnetic observers in general, that we owe our deliverance from that absurd method of estimating forces by a variable standard which prevailed so long even among men of science. It was Gauss who first based the practical measurement of magnetic force (and therefore of every other force) on those long established principles, which, though they are embodied in every dynamical equation, have been so generally set aside, that these very equations, though correctly given... are usually explained... by assuming, in addition to the variable standard of force, a variable, and therefore illegal, standard of mass.
  • There is no more powerful method for introducing knowledge into the mind than that of presenting it in as many different ways as we can. When the ideas, after entering through different gateways, effect a junction in the citadel of the mind, the position they occupy becomes impregnable.
  • The knowledge of physical science obtained by the combined use of mathematical analysis and experimental research will be of a more solid, available, and enduring kind than that possessed by the mere mathematician or the mere experimenter.
  • It is not till we attempt to bring the theoretical part of our training into contact with the practical that we begin to experience the full effect of what Faraday has called "mental inertia"—not only the difficulty of recognising, among the concrete objects before us, the abstract relation which we have learned from books, but the distracting pain of wrenching the mind away from the symbols to the objects, and from the objects back to the symbols. This however is the price we have to pay for new ideas.
  • When we have overcome these difficulties, and successfully bridged over the gulph between the abstract and the concrete... we have acquired the rudiment of a permanent mental endowment. When, by a repetition of efforts of this kind, we have more fully developed the scientific faculty, the exercise of this faculty in detecting scientific principles in nature, and in directing practice by theory, is no longer irksome, but becomes an unfailing source of enjoyment, to which we return so often, that at last even our careless thoughts begin to run in a scientific channel.
  • Now in the case of study, a great part of our fatigue often arises, not from those mental efforts by which we obtain the mastery of the subject, but from those which are spent in recalling our wandering thoughts; and these efforts of attention would be much less fatiguing if the disturbing force of mental distraction could be removed.
  • A man whose soul is in his work always makes more progress than one whose aim is something not immediately connected with his occupation. In the latter case the very motive of which he makes use to stimulate his flagging powers becomes the means of distracting his mind from the work before him.
  • There may be some mathematicians who pursue their studies entirely for their own sake. Most men, however, think that the chief use of mathematics is found in the interpretation of nature. Now a man who studies a piece of mathematics in order to understand some natural phenomenon which he has seen, or to calculate the best arrangement of some experiment which he means to make, is likely to meet with far less distraction of mind than if his sole aim had been to sharpen his mind for the successful practice of the Law, or to obtain a high place in the Mathematical Tripos.
  • It must be one of our most constant aims to maintain a living connexion between our work and the other liberal studies of Cambridge, whether literary, philological, historical or philosophical.
  • There is a narrow professional spirit which may grow up among men of science, just as it does among men who practise any other special business. But surely a University is the very place where we should be able to overcome this tendency of men to become, as it were, granulated into small worlds, which are all the more worldly for their very smallness. We lose the advantage of having men of varied pursuits collected into one body, if we do not endeavour to imbibe some of the spirit even of those whose special branch of learning is different from our own.
  • It is not so long ago since any man who devoted himself to geometry, or to any science requiring continued application, was looked upon as necessarily a misanthrope, who must have abandoned all human interests, and betaken himself to abstractions so far removed from the world of life and action that he has become insensible alike to the attractions of pleasure and to the claims of duty. In the present day, men of science are not looked upon with the same awe or with the same suspicion. They are supposed to be in league with the material spirit of the age, and to form a kind of advanced Radical party among men of learning.
  • It is true that the history of science is very different from the science of history. We are not studying or attempting to study the working of those blind forces which, we are told, are operating on crowds of obscure people, shaking principalities and powers, and compelling reasonable men to bring events to pass in an order laid down by philosophers. The men whose names are found in the history of science are not mere hypothetical constituents of a crowd, to be reasoned upon only in masses. We recognise them as men like ourselves, and their actions and thoughts, being more free from the influence of passion, and recorded more accurately than those of other men, are all the better materials for the study of the calmer parts of human nature.
  • The history of science is not restricted to the enumeration of successful investigations. It has to tell of unsuccessful inquiries, and to explain why some of the ablest men have failed to find the key of knowledge, and how the reputation of others has only given a firmer footing to the errors into which they fell.
  • The history of the development, whether normal or abnormal, of ideas is of all subjects that in which we, as thinking men, take the deepest interest. But when the action of the mind passes out of the intellectual stage, in which truth and error are the alternatives, into the more violently emotional states of anger and passion, malice and envy, fury and madness; the student of science, though he is obliged to recognise the powerful influence which these wild forces have exercised on mankind, is perhaps in some measure disqualified from pursuing the study of this part of human nature.
  • We cannot enter into full sympathy with these lower phases of our nature without losing some of that antipathy to them which is our surest safeguard against a reversion to a meaner type, and we gladly return to the company of those illustrious men who by aspiring to noble ends, whether intellectual or practical, have risen above the region of storms into a clearer atmosphere, where there is no misrepresentation of opinion, nor ambiguity of expression, but where one mind comes into closest contact with another at the point where both approach nearest to the truth.
  • Two theories of the constitution of bodies have struggled for victory with various fortunes since the earliest ages of speculation: one is the theory of a universal plenum, the other is that of atoms and void. The theory of the plenum is associated with the doctrine of mathematical continuity, and its mathematical methods are those of the Differential Calculus, which is the appropriate expression of the relations of continuous quantity. The theory of atoms and void leads us to attach more importance to the doctrines of integral numbers and definite proportions; but, in applying dynamical principles to the motion of immense numbers of atoms, the limitation of our faculties forces us to abandon the attempt to express the exact history of each atom, and to be content with estimating the average condition of a group of atoms large enough to be visible. This method... which I may call the statistical method, and which in the present state of our knowledge is the only available method of studying the properties of real bodies, involves an abandonment of strict dynamical principles, and an adoption of the mathematical methods belonging to the theory of probability. ...If the actual history of Science had been different, and if the scientific doctrines most familiar to us had been those which must be expressed in this way, it is possible that we might have considered the existence of a certain kind of contingency a self evident truth, and treated the doctrine of philosophical necessity as a mere sophism.
  • The properties of bodies were investigated by several distinguished French mathematicians on the hypothesis that they are systems of molecules in equilibrium. The somewhat unsatisfactory nature of the results... produced... a reaction in favour of the opposite method of treating bodies as if they were... continuous. This method, in the hands of Green, Stokes, and others, has led to results the value of which does not at all depend on what theory we adopt as to the ultimate constitution of bodies.
  • There are innumerable other molecules, whose constants are not approximately, but absolutely identical with those of the first molecule, and this whether they are found on the earth, in the sun, or in the fixed stars. By what process of evolution the philosophers of the future will attempt to account for this identity in the properties of such a multitude of bodies, each of them unchangeable in magnitude, and some of them separated from others by distances which Astronomy attempts in vain to measure, I cannot conjecture. My mind is limited in its power of speculation, and I am forced to believe that these molecules must have been made as they are from the beginning of their existence. ...we cannot ascribe either their existence or the identity of their properties to the operation of any of those causes which we call natural. Is it true then that our scientific speculations have really penetrated beneath the visible appearance of things which seem to be subject to generation and corruption and reached the entrance of that world of order and perfection which continues this day as it was created perfect in number and measure and weight?
  • We may be mistaken. No one has as yet seen or handled an individual molecule, and our molecular hypothesis may, in its turn, be supplanted by some new theory of the constitution of matter; but the idea of the existence of unnumbered individual things, all alike and all unchangeable, is one which cannot enter the human mind and remain without fruit. But what if these molecules, indestructible as they are, turn out to be not substances themselves, but mere affections of some other substance?
  • According to Sir W. Thomson's theory of Vortex Atoms, the substance of which the molecule consists is a uniformly dense plenum, the properties of which are those of a perfect fluid, the molecule itself being nothing but a certain motion impressed on a portion of this fluid, and this motion is shewn, by a theorem due to Helmholtz, to be as indestructible as we believe a portion of matter to be. If a theory of this kind is true, or even if it is conceivable, our idea of matter may have been introduced into our minds through our experience of those systems of vortices which we call bodies, but which are not substances, but motions of a substance; and yet the idea which we have thus acquired of matter, as a substance possessing inertia, may be truly applicable to that fluid of which the vortices are the motion, but of whose existence, apart from the vortical motion of some of its parts, our experience gives us no evidence whatever.
  • It has been asserted that metaphysical speculation is a thing of the past and that physical science has extirpated it. The discussion of the categories of existence, however, does not appear to be in danger of coming to an end in our time, and the exercise of speculation continues as fascinating to every fresh mind as it was in the days of Thales.