The Surprising Story of How James Clerk Maxwell Discovered Radio Waves
The Scottish theoretician James Clerk Maxwell is famous for his beautiful and concise equations summarizing the relationships between electricity, magnetism, and electromagnetic fields.
But did you know...
- Maxwell's equations as taught today are not the equations as Maxwell wrote them. His equations were consolidated and updated by Heinrich Hertz and Oliver Heaviside.
- Maxwell discovered electromagnetic waves on paper using a mechanical analogy replete with spinning gears and idle wheels. The only empirical evidence that Maxwell had was that the measured speed of light, which he suspected was a form of electromagnetic radiation, was close to the speed he calculated for electromagnetic waves.
- Maxwell's theory of the electromagnetic field assumed the existence of a "luminiferous ether" permeating all of space. To this day, there is no way to explain how Maxwell could have been right when the ether theory was wrong. (Maxwell assumed the motion of charged particles in the ether.)
- Maxwell was the first scientist to discover that not all physical laws must be obeyed in all cases. This idea, which he conceived while thinking about gases and heat, prepared the way for quantum mechanics and information theory.
- Maxwell appreciated empirical research, but he also felt that theory was needed to help "reduce the facts to order." He didn't see theories as provisional facts as many do today; he saw theories as models to help guide further research.
Most scientists and science enthusiasts were delighted when Barack Obama was elected President. Many felt that the Bush administration was anti-science and that the younger Obama crowd is more in tune with modern science and advanced technology.
I don't claim that the Bush administration was particularly pro-science. But in the short time that President Obama has been in office, he has exhibited feelings bordering on contempt for several technologies and technology-based industries.
Most recently, the President has weighed in on modern medical practices, suggesting that many expensive medical procedures are unnecessary (e.g., tonsillectomies) or wasteful (operating on grandmothers who, according to him, should instead be given pain killers).
Is this the same President who assures us that his proposed health care reforms will not limit our choices? It sounds like he is preparing us for greater oversight--if not outright rationing--of health care services.
The Obama administration has also taken sides on a number of scientific controversies. It's one thing to be concerned that human activity is causing global warming which, in turn, may be damaging the environment. But it's another to wholeheartedly embrace a chain of disputed theories. A genuinely pro-science administration would understand the importance of skepticism in science. The President should not be seen as discouraging critical thinking, debate, and synthesis of new ideas.
President Obama's choice for Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin, is also troubling. Dr. Benjamin practices family medicine in a rural health clinic. She is about as removed from leading centers of medical research, high-tech hospitals, and the full panoply of medical specialists as one can get. I don't mind that family medicine emphasizes prevention. But the notion of family doctor-centered health care seems to hearken back to a simpler time.
President Obama has expressed hostility towards proven sources of energy such as oil, coal, and nuclear fuel. Instead, he wants us to invest in less concentrated and less reliable sources of energy such as wind, sunlight, and batteries. We don't know whether these sources can even meet our present energy needs, nor do we know the real costs (dollars, impact on the environment, etc.) of their large scale adoption.
The greatest benefit of science is that it provides an array of tools and conveniences to empower individuals. Yet most environmentalists believe we should rely more on public transportation, car pooling, bicycles, and walking.
Obama has repeatedly expressed the view that high-tech industries, if left to their own devices, would serve only a privileged few. This is simply not true. High-tech industries have demonstrated over and over that they will drive down prices, expand existing markets, and seek new markets if permitted to do so.
Does the administration's support for embryonic stem cell research and electronic medical records (EMRs) show that it is more supportive of science than the Bush administration? The Bush administration did not oppose stem cell research or even embryonic stem cell research. It opposed, on ethical grounds, federal funding of further harvesting embryonic stem cells. The Obama administration cleverly portrayed this as an "Are you for or against science?" issue as a way of dismissing legitimate ethical concerns.
Electronic medical records (EMRs) are a government bureaucrat's pipe dream. The U.S. health care industry already has the ability to share patients' medical data electronically (fax and email). Many hospital IT departments allow doctors to access patient records, including test results and scans, from any PC on the network. Many in industry believe that EMRs are already obsolete. This isn't about government prodding the health care industry to be more efficient; this is about government inventing excuses to grab more power. (By the way, the Clinton and Bush administrations also supported EMRs.)
There are two ways that the President can support science. First, by ensuring that scientists are free to investigate and promote whatever theories intrigue them. Some theories deserve to be laughed off the stage, but the marketplace and not government officials should decide. The clash of opposing ideas is essential to the progress of science.
Second, the President can demonstrate, in words and deeds, appreciation for a wide range of scientific achievements.
Sadly, President Obama seems to think he can support science by choosing winners in theoretical disputes and in the marketplace. That's not being pro-science, that's simply imposing his political views on science.
Michael Faraday is widely considered the greatest experimentalist in history. However, he broke the mold in two major respects. While he sought facts and had little patience for theories, his religious views clearly inspired some of his biggest discoveries. His life story also challenges contemporary assumptions about formal education.
The historical record shows that great scientists may be atheists or deeply religious, or they may fall somewhere in the middle. That does not mean, however, that religious beliefs are irrelevant. For reasons I don’t claim to understand, religious belief and non-belief seem equally capable of inspiring scientists, though one may be more appropriate than the other for making specific breakthroughs at specific moments in history.
Faraday believed that nature was designed and the researcher’s job is to discover the details. His conviction that there is an underlying unity to nature led him to devise experiments demonstrating the links between electricity, magnetism, and light. He believed so strongly in the relationship between light and magnetism that he spent decades pursuing it.
Faraday also did not hesitate to assert the reality of something non-material: force fields. However, it wasn’t just an assertion; Faraday produced vast evidence in the form of verifiable and repeatable experiments. He demolished the then popular idea that science need only be concerned with matter and motion.
People who believe that scientists should deal exclusively with empirical facts are fond of citing Faraday as an example. However, there was more to Michael Faraday than they might care to admit. Faraday emphasized the priority of facts given the many vague and far-flung theories circulating at the time. But he also acknowledged that intuition and theory can prove their worth by suggesting new experiments. No doubt Faraday’s religious convictions helped guide his own choice of experiments.
Today’s science establishment seems convinced that tomorrow’s scientists will be made in K-12 classrooms. Michael Faraday is a shining counter example: he received little formal education and was primarily self-taught. The counter-counter argument is that what worked for Faraday in the 19th century will not work today. However, that ignores the fact that Faraday was never fully accepted by his peers.
Michael Faraday demonstrated that an intelligent and determined individual can succeed in science despite lacking the credentials, status, and foundation of knowledge generally considered necessary. (For starters, Faraday was not conversant in higher mathematics.) What today's science establishment fails to see is that there is always a need for people who—like most entrepreneurs and dissidents—travel a different path. To wit, scientific progress depends on the interplay between conventional and non-conventional ideas and methods.
Next time: James Clerk Maxwell Avoids the Laboratory and Discovers Electromagnetic Waves in his Mind