James Clerk Maxwell was born in Edinburgh Scotland on June 13, 1831 and from the age of three years old he was described as have an innate sense of inquisitiveness. In 1839 at the young age of 8 years old James’ mother passed away from abdominal cancer which put the boy’s father and father’s sister-in-law in charge of his schooling. In February of 1842 James’ father took him to see Robert Davidson’s demonstration of electric propulsion and magnetic force; little did he know that this event would strongly impact on his future.
Fascinated with geometry from an early age James would go on to rediscover the regular polyhedron before he was instructed. At the age of 13 James’ would go on to win the schools mathematical medal and first prize in both English and Poetry.
Later in his life James would go on to calculate and discover the relationship between light, electricity, and magnetism. This discovery would lay the ground work for Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. Einstein later credit Maxwell for laying the ground work and said his work was “the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.”. James Maxwell’s work would literally lay the ground work for launching the world into the nuclear age.
Starting in the year 1859 Maxwell would begin developing the theory of the distribution of velocities in particles of gas, which was later generalized by Ludwig Boltzmann in the formula called the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution. In his kinetic theory, it is stated that temperature and heat involve only molecular movement. Eventually his work in thermodynamics would lead him to a though experiment that would hypothetically violate the second law of thermodynamics, because the total entropy of the two gases would decrease without applying any work. His description of the experiment is as follows:
“…if we conceive of a being whose faculties are so sharpened that he can follow every molecule in its course, such a being, whose attributes are as essentially finite as our own, would be able to do what is impossible to us. For we have seen that molecules in a vessel full of air at uniform temperature are moving with velocities by no means uniform, though the mean velocity of any great number of them, arbitrarily selected, is almost exactly uniform. Now let us suppose that such a vessel is divided into two portions, A and B, by a division in which there is a small hole, and that a being, who can see the individual molecules, opens and closes this hole, so as to allow only the swifter molecules to pass from A to B, and only the slower molecules to pass from B to A. He will thus, without expenditure of work, raise the temperature of B and lower that of A, in contradiction to the second law of thermodynamics.“
Here at EXAIR we are very familiar with Maxwell’s “friendly little demon” that can separate gases into a cold and hot stream. His thought experiment, although unproven in his life time, did come to fruition with the introduction of the Vortex Tube.
With his birthday being last weekend I propose that we raise a glass and tip our hats to a brilliant man and strive to remember the brilliant ideas that he gave us.
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