Entranced by the Factory

Simon Schaffer

  • The Natural Philosophy of James Clerk Maxwell by P.M. Harman
    Cambridge, 232 pp, £35.00, April 1998, ISBN 0 521 56102 7

Late 20th-century sciences are publicised through hands-on exhibitions, press conferences, chat shows and interactive CD-Roms. The Victorians had a different system and, as usual, painstakingly classified it. There was the conversazione and the soirée; the grand lecture and the subscription dinner; the amateur society and the private club; above all, there were periodicals and public museums. Whether at the Crystal Palace, the Athenaeum or the local working men’s college, disseminating science was as much a moral as a material issue, since understanding the Creation might yield principles of ethics as well as mastery of nature.

Invited in 1873 to join a new society for metropolitan physicists, the Cambridge professor James Clerk Maxwell set out in his witty way the practical philosophy of this public science. He thought soirées were like clouds of gas particles: they allowed buttonholing only during the brief if violent collisions of their participants. Lecture-rooms were crystalline, everyone fixed in their place, bathed in the diffuse light of scientific oratory. The dinner table resembled a badly-designed electrical circuit, ‘with flowers in the middle to prevent cross-currents’. The ideal, the ‘intermediate plastic condition’, was the genteel clubroom, in which ‘confused talk’ let each member know which of his companions might be interested or interesting. This colloidal world was where Maxwell and his like developed much of their philosophy. Politely portentous reflections on destiny and free will, materialism and evolution, causality and probability, provided topics for metaphysics laced with madeira. The leather-bound world of these natural philosophers can seem, and often was, deliberately insulated from the highly-charged milieux of the Age of Steam, Soap and Steel. Peter Harman’s new book tries to demonstrate how much metaphysics mattered in the everyday labours of Victorian Britain’s greatest mathematical physicist.

Comparisons are odious, but league-tables are another feature of the public life of contemporary science. A couple of years ago, I was asked by a BBC producer to nominate candidates for inclusion in a radio series, On Giants’ Shoulders, the plan being to juxtapose comments by current scientists and by historians on great scientific figures of the past, from Archimedes to Crick and Watson. I at once suggested Maxwell, not only the acknowledged progenitor of electromagnetic field theory and statistical thermodynamics, but a man of self-mocking humour, whose obiter dicta would well fill thirty minutes’ chat. In vain: a physicist and eminent populariser of science told the producer that whereas a genius such as Michael Faraday would have been awarded three different Nobel Prizes had they then existed, Maxwell would only have won one. No room for him on Auntie’s Olympus. I have no idea which of Maxwell’s achievements might have gained this anachronistic reward: his projection of the first three-colour photograph in 1861; his invention of a new kind of vector algebra; his brilliant use of reciprocal diagrams to analyse stresses in bridges or his innovative work in topology; his papers on the way governors maintain stability in rotating systems or his application of probability calculus to the motion of gases, including his amazing proof that the viscosity of a gas is independent of its pressure; even, perhaps, his argument that light must be a kind of transverse vibration in a universally distributed electromagnetic ether, an inspiration for the work of Heinrich Hertz and other physicists of the radio epoch.

Maxwell worried about his public. He combined a Christian Socialist commitment to teaching science to workers with the gentlemanly administration of Cambridge’s first experimental physics laboratory and the production of major textbooks in electromagnetism, mechanics and heat theory. The insightful Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann once compared Maxwell’s style to that of a Wagnerian: ‘as if by a magic wand hopeless confusion is reduced to order. Obediently, his formulae deliver result after result, until we reach the final surprise effect.’ More prosaically, Maxwell’s lifelong friend Lewis Campbell saw him as ‘a country gentleman, or rather, to be more accurate, a North Country laird’. Maxwell lived in a rather less divided culture than that of C.P. Snow’s absurd caricature. In 1873, he suggested a joke question for the Cambridge mathematics examination, inviting candidates to interpret every vector ‘in literary geometrical terms’, and in the same year humoured his classicist friend Campbell with the thought that Middlemarch was just a solar myth, Rosamond standing for the Dawn and ‘Lyd Gate, being compounded of two nouns, both of which signify something which opens, as the eye-lids of the morn and the gates of day’. There were comic verses on submarine telegraphy and moving sonnets on his religious enthusiasms; brief postcards in mirror-writing or playful Greek lettering embodying radical new models of space alongside sketches of clever experiments on colour vision and thorough drafts of treatises on heat and electromagnetism.

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