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 
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

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

Artificial Intelligence - Yorick Wilks ****

Artificial intelligence is one of those topics where it's very easy to spin off into speculation, whether it's about machine conciousness or AI taking over the world (and don't get me onto the relatively rare connection to robots - cover designer please note). All the experience of AI to date has been that it has been made feasible far slower than originally predicted, and that it faces dramatic limitations. So, for example, self-driving cars may be okay in limited circumstances, but are nowhere near ready for the commute home. Similarly, despite all the moves forward in AI technology, computers are so-so at recognising objects after learning from thousands of examples - sometimes fooled by apparently trivial surface patterning - where humans can recognise items from a handful of examples.

Even so, we can't deny that AI is having an influence on our lives and Yorick Wilks, emeritus professor of AI at the University of Sheffield, is ideally placed to give us a picture …

Apollo 11 - David Whitehouse *****

The problem with doing a book about the Apollo programme is that it's hard to find something that hasn't been said before - but with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing just weeks away, the publication of this elegant book is extremely timely, and science-reporting veteran David Whitehouse manages to make the story feel fresh, even if you're one of the just 20 per cent of the world population who were alive on the remarkable day in 1969.

Although he has worked a lot with New Scientist, Whitehouse was for many years a TV journalist, and that comes through in his impressively engaging prose as he takes us back to the origins of the US/USSR space race that would lead to the moon landing. He passes through the wartime aspects relatively quickly, but once the two superpowers are flexing their space technology muscles, Whitehouse achieves a near perfect balance between the far less-heard USSR side of the story and the US. This is probably the best bit of the whole bo…