Skip to main content

Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon - Brian Clegg ****

‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.

There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwell achieved – and how he went about it, and why it puts him on a par with the other greats.

The book’s most unusual feature is hinted at in the title. This is a reference to the thought experiment of ‘Maxwell’s Demon’ – which seems to show how (to put it in modern terms) an artificial intelligence equipped with sufficiently high-resolution nanosensors could overthrow the second law of thermodynamics (the one that says entropy can never decrease). Clegg brings the demon to life, allocating something like a fifth of the total page count to first-person ‘demonic interludes’ – providing background-filling flashbacks and flashforwards – supplemented by copious footnotes on the main chronological narrative. The demon’s writing style is a slightly more whimsical version of Clegg’s own, so the overall effect is rather like the author putting on a demon mask and continuing to speak in his own voice. That would be an entertaining way to lighten a heavy subject in a public lecture, and it’s just as effective here.

But even the presence of a reader-friendly demon can’t hide the fact that this is a book about physics. With Newton you can soften the blow by talking about his alchemical studies, with Einstein there’s his political campaigning, with Galileo his battles against the church, with Hawking his battles against disability. But with Maxwell there’s nothing like that. He had a nice sense of humour, a few harmless pastimes, a happy marriage – and beyond that, his life was all about physics.

Fortunately that doesn’t make this a textbook, not by a long shot. The focus isn’t so much on the details of Maxwell’s work, as on how he went about it and how his mind worked. The result is a fascinating read for anyone who’s already had the textbook inflicted on them – or perhaps come across Maxwell’s name in some other context – and wants to see how it all links together as a historical narrative. Because he did so many different things, everyone is going to learn at least a few new facts. How many people know that Maxwell produced the first colour photograph, or devised the unit of electrical resistance, the Ohm, or created the science of control theory, later renamed cybernetics? 

In one of the demonic interludes, Clegg has the demon assert that 78% of the book’s readers had never heard Maxwell’s name before they picked it up. He immediately admits he made the number up, and I don’t believe it for a moment. Maybe 78% of the general population have never heard of Maxwell, but readers are self-selecting. The ones who pick this book up are likely to come at it with at least some awareness of Maxwell’s existence – and a curiosity to learn more about his life and work. And they won’t be disappointed.
Hardback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Andrew May
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Patricia Fara - Four Way Interview

Patricia Fara lectures in the history of science at Cambridge University, where she is a Fellow of Clare College. She was the President of the British Society for the History of Science (2016-18) and her prize-winning book, Science: A Four Thousand Year History (OUP, 2009), has been translated into nine languages. An experienced public lecturer, Patricia Fara appears regularly in TV documentaries and radio programmes. She also contributes articles and reviews to many popular magazines and journals, including History Today, BBC History, New Scientist, Nature and the Times Literary SupplementHer new book is Erasmus Darwin.

Why history of science?
I read physics at university, but half-way through the course I realised that had been a big mistake. Although I relished the intellectual challenge, I was bored by the long hours spent lining up recalcitrant instruments in dusty laboratories. Why was nobody encouraging us to think about the big questions – What is gravity? Does quantum mechani…

The Idea of the Brain: Matthew Cobb *****

Matthew Cobb is one of those people that you can’t help but admire but also secretly hate just a little bit for being so awesome. He is professor for zoology at the University of Manchester with a sizable teaching load that he apparently masters with consummate skill. He’s a scientific researcher, who researches the sense of smell of fruit fly maggots; I kid you not!  He’s also an attentive and loving family father but he still finds time and energy to write brilliant history of science books, three to date. His first, The Egg and Sperm Race, describes the search for the secret of human reproduction in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is one of my favourite history of science books, on the period. His second, Life’s Greatest Secret is a monster, both in scope and detail, description of the hunt to decipher the structure and function of DNA that along the way demolishes a whole boatload of modern history of science myths. The most recent, and the subject of this review, is

The Big Ideas in Science - Jon Evans ***

The starting point of a review like this has to be to congratulate the author on his achievement, Jon Evans, because getting all of science into one relatively short book is a massive (and thankless) task. Although inevitably the result is a fairly hectic dash through the material, with limited space for subtleness, Evans manages to make the experience readable and has a light touch that is effective without becoming too simplistic.

There is only one reason this book doesn't get four stars - it's not the quality of the writing but rather the selection of the contents. Of course, there is bound to be plenty of stuff missed out - how else could you get all of science into 269 pages? But the balance is strangely skewed. Chemistry is pretty much omitted, though aspects of chemistry occur under other headings. But for me, the real problem is that physics is really under-represented. It's interesting to use Jim Al-Khalili's recent excellent physics summary title The World Acc…