James Clerk Maxwell: physicist and poet

When my husband and I first moved to Aberdeen in 1983, we stayed briefly in a house on Clerk Maxwell Crescent.  It shames me now to admit that at the time I had only the vaguest idea who James Clerk Maxwell was, despite having studied electromagnetism as part of my undergraduate degree.

I knew his name from the four breath-takingly beautiful equations that he formulated to describe electromagnetic fields. It was much later that I learned about his work on the kinetic theory of gases, his research into colour and colour photography, his investigation into Saturn’s rings, his contributions to control theory and topology and his many other wide-ranging achievements.

I also discovered that he was an accomplished poet. 

James Clerk Maxwell was born in Edinburgh in 1831 and died in 1879 in Cambridge, when he was only forty-eight years old. He was one of the great intellects of the nineteenth century, or indeed of any era. Later scientists, including Einstein, Max Planck and Richard Feynman, testified to his legacy. You can find a good summary overview of his immense contribution to mathematical physics on  The James Clerk Maxwell Foundation website.

It is from his poetry that we get an impression of Maxwell the man: engaging, generous, open-hearted, eclectic, with a strong Christian faith and a delightful sense of fun. His poems reflect not only his scientific knowledge and curiosity, but also his reading.  There are translations of odes by Horace and a passage from Sophocles, as well as a light-hearted pastiche of Robert Burns’s poem ‘Coming thro’ the Rye’ that invokes Newton’s laws of motion:

‘Gin a body meet a body
Flyin’ through the air,
Gin a body hit a body,
Will it fly? and where?’

From 1850 to 1854 Maxwell was an undergraduate at Cambridge, studying for the Mathematical Tripos. At that time the Tripos placed more emphasis on mathematical ingenuity and dexterity than on applications, something which Maxwell, with his practical mind and intense curiosity about the natural world, found frustrating. In ‘Lines written under the conviction that it is not wise to read Mathematics in November after one’s fire is out’, he opens with a bleak description of Cambridge in autumn:

‘In the sad November time,
When the leaf has left the lime,
And the Cam, with sludge and slime,
Plasters his ugly channel’.

Such a setting offers no encouragement for students ‘shivering through their flannel’ as they wrestle with pointless and intractable problems:

‘Why should wretched Man employ
Years which Nature meant for joy,
Striving vainly to destroy
Freedom of thought and feeling?’

Generations of students preparing for exams will relate to the sentiments Maxwell expresses here! 

In spite of the academic drudgery, Maxwell still found time to indulge his quirky sense of humour. ‘A Problem in Dynamics’, written in February 1854, is a delightfully tongue-in-cheek analysis of a problem involving an ‘inextensible heavy chain’ subject to an impulsive force. In dexterous rhyming couplets he states the problem and defines the terms used before proceeding to the method of solution:

‘In working the problem the first thing of course is
To equate the impressed and effectual forces.’

After some convoluted calculations, we share a sigh of relief with the poet as he moves on to the next step, while simultaneously pushing rhyme to its limits:

‘Now joyfully leaving ds to itself, a-
Ttend to the values of T and of α.’

In 1856 Maxwell was appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College in Aberdeen, a post he would occupy until 1860. During this time he met and married Katherine Mary Dewar, daughter of the College principal.

We know very little of Katherine, but she seems to have shared Maxwell’s enthusiasm for scientific investigation and assisted him with his experiments.

 By all accounts the marriage was very strong. Two of Maxwell’s poems are dedicated to Katherine: ‘To K.M.D is a charming invocation of the joy and energy of Spring, while ‘To my Wife reflects movingly upon the capacity of love to endure through adversity and even beyond death:

‘All powers of mind, all force of will,
May lie in dust when we are dead,
But love is ours, and shall be still,
When earth and seas are fled.’

And did he have Katherine in mind when he describes a galvanometer experiment in an undated poem that is coursed through with undercurrents of passion?

‘Swing magnet, swing, advancing and receding,
Swing magnet! Answer dearest, What’s your final reading?’

From Aberdeen, James Clerk Maxwell took up a professorship at Kings College London and in 1871 he was appointed founding Director of the renowned Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. A few of Maxwell’s later poems appeared in Nature, using the signature dp/dt. This was another example of his humour, as it references a thermodynamic equation dp/dt = JCM, which were, of course, Maxwell’s initials. 

In general, however, Maxwell seems to have written poetry for his own satisfaction, to share his ideas and feelings with family and good friends without any thought of wider publication. After his untimely death from cancer, his close friend Lewis Campbell, Professor of Greek at St Andrews, made the decision to include a selection of Maxwell’s poetry in the biography he wrote with William Garnett in 1882. Campbell wrote of the poems:

‘Like everything which he did, they are characteristic of him, and some of them have a curious biographical interest. Maxwell was singularly reserved in common life, but would sometimes in solitude express his deepest feelings in a copy of verses which he would afterwards silently communicate to a friend.’

Through reading Maxwell’s poems, we gain insight into his endless curiosity and rich imagination, his ability to make connections between disparate aspects of life, his intense focus and the passions that drove him, his affectionate nature and lively sense of humour. This was a man who drew down ‘the spark from the cloud’ and in so doing contributed immensely to the scientific and technological framework of our twenty-first century lives. 

References and further reading

Campbell, Lewis and Garnett, William (1882), The Life of James Clerk Maxwell. London, Macmillan.

Clegg, Brian (2019), Professor Maxwell’s Duplicitous Demon. London, Icon Books.

Illingworth, Sam (2019), A Sonnet to Science: Scientists and their Poetry. Manchester, Manchester University Press.

Mahon, Basil (2004), The Man who Changed Everything. Chichester, John Wiley and Sons.

Maxwell, James Clerk (online) Poems. Available at https://mypoeticside.com/poets/james-clerk-maxwell-poems

Silver, Daniel (online), Scottish Physics and Knot Theory’s Odd Origins. Available at https://www.southalabama.edu/mathstat/personal_pages/silver/scottish.pdf.

Silver, Daniel (online), The Last Poem of James Clerk Maxwell. Available at https://www.ams.org/notices/200810/tx081001266p.pdf 

For the mathematically minded, the following text offers a good introduction to Maxwell’s equations:

Fleisch, Daniel (2008), A Student’s Guide to Maxwell’s Equations. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Posted on 29th January 2020.

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