Maxwell and Einstein

Published 2-19-2016

The recent detection of gravitational waves highlights not merely one, but two of the greatest scientists in history and the startling intersections of their respective discoveries. Many news articles proclaimed the idea that “Einstein was right” in his 1916 declaration concerning the reality of gravitational waves and the theories of relativity. But we must search important quotes to learn of many statements Einstein voiced concerning James Clerk Maxwell. Albert Einstein was effusive in praising the importance of James Clerk Maxwell as a giant in the field of science. In a strange irony, Maxwell (1831-1879) died in the same year Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was born. But Einstein recognized the profound importance of his scientific forebear.

James Clerk Maxwell studied previous discoveries on electricity and magnetism during the middle of the 19th century. Maxwell’s work unified the forces of electricity and magnetism in his theory of electromagnetism. His calculations revealed that electromagnetic waves travel away at a finite speed. Scientists had calculated the speed of light fairly accurately in the century prior to Maxwell. The speed of light agreed with Maxwell’s calculations of electromagnetic wave speed. Therefore, Maxwell conceived of light as an electromagnetic wave.

Maxwell predicted that many other electromagnetic waves should be possible long before they became a reality. In theory, electromagnetic waves could be of any length or frequency. He anticipated the electromagnetic spectrum, but during his life he did not know the future applications of his theory of electromagnetism. Heinrich Hertz proved that radio waves could exist less than a decade after Maxwell died, generating them with experiments in the late 1880s. In 1900, the first human voice was sent by radio over an electromagnetic wave in a primitive experiment. In 1906 a short radio broadcast was sent on Christmas eve to shipboard receivers along the coast of the eastern US. Human speech along with vocal and instrumental music was transmitted by a pioneer named Reginald Fessenden. It was still a long way from the tens of thousands of radio frequencies scientists learned to generate in the following century, not to mention television, radar, microwaves, thermal imaging, and many thousands of applications of electromagnetic energy sustaining our lifestyle in modern times. Our modern system of communications and entertainment has its origin in James Clerk Maxwell’s electromagnetic spectrum.

Throughout his life Albert Einstein was generous in praise of Maxwell. He stated, “The special theory of relativity owes its origins to Maxwell’s equations of the electromagnetic field.” Also, in reference to Maxwell’s concept of energy fields, Einstein said, “Since Maxwell’s time, physical reality has been thought of as represented by continuous fields, and not capable of any mechanical interpretation. This change in the conception of reality is the most profound and most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.”

In February 2016 we were reminded of the terms “space-time continuum” and the “space-time fabric” by plentiful reporting. Einstein would be thrilled at the 1998 discovery that 68% of the mass of the universe is due to a mysterious “dark energy” driving the expansion of the universe into a state of fine tuning beyond our wildest imagination. In addition, 27% of the universe’s mass is composed of “dark matter.” Recently discovered gravity waves may be less mysterious in our day had Einstein been able to detect them and experiment with them a century ago. The recent discovery of dark energy and dark matter during Einstein’s life may have inspired him to propose answers to even more mysteries. Applying the popular modern idiom, Einstein was “ahead of the curve” with his concept of gravity waves which took 100 years for scientists to detect.

James Clerk Maxwell was also ahead of the curve. For a science intellect like Albert Einstein to heap lavish praise on him indicates the importance of electromagnetic fields and the electromagnetic spectrum on which our contemporary lives depend. In lighter moments, I have stated that when we arrive in our eternal home beyond the current cosmos, I may inquire of the Creator concerning secrets of the electromagnetic spectrum. At the same time we might inquire about the secrets of gravity waves and many other mysteries of our present cosmos including the mysteries of special and general relativity. The Apostle Paul no doubt had spiritual realities in mind when he penned I Corinthians 2:9: “No one’s ever seen or heard anything like this, never so much as imagined anything quite like it—what God has arranged for those who love him” (The Message Translation). In my imagination, I fancy discovering truths about the operation of our present cosmos in future eternity .

In 2008 we blogged on James Clerk Maxwell and his deep Christian faith. Maxwell was a scientist of great repute who never proposed a “God-of-the-Gaps” solution for any of the mysteries of the universe. He preferred to explain phenomena according to the laws God had established for the operation of this cosmos:

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