3 December, 2020

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Celebrating 150 Years Of James Clerk Maxwell

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

This (2015) is the International Year of Light; Celebrating 150 Years of James Clerk Maxwell

The United Nations General Assembly declared 2015 the International Year of Light – full name ‘Light and Light Based Technologies’ – and coincidentally or otherwise 2015 commemorates the 150-th anniversary of Maxwell’s Equations. In 1865 Maxwell presented what is known as the second great unification of classical physics (second to Newton); the theory of electromagnetic propagation (light is one version) which underlies cell phones, radar, TV and radio, optics and optical fibres, terrestrial, satellite and space communications and even the discovery of the Higgs boson. The advent of special relativity did not bypass Maxwell’s equations in the way that general relativity superseded Newton’s laws of gravitation; a relativistic reformulation of Maxwell’s original version has sufficed! The illustration accompanying this essay shows Maxwell’s classical vector equations whose pristine beauty has not been surpassed in any rendering of any scientific theory.

Celebratory events for the Year of Light such as learned society symposia and optics related exhibitions have been held in Algeria, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Greece, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Singapore, Russia, Taiwan, Tunisia and many other places, including several events in the UK and the US. In all over 100 can be counted on the web, but bad sadly I could not find reference to anything in Lanka. Next Friday (20 November) the University of Michigan (Anne Arbor, USA) will conduct a symposium entitled ‘A celebration to commemorate Maxwell’s foundational contributions’ and on 9 November the Royal Society of Edinburgh held a similar event.

Clerk MaxwellFor science, London in the eight years from 1859 was an amazing period. Maxwell’s treatise (A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field) aside, two monumental works appeared in this brief span; Origin of Species in November 1859 and Kapital in July 1867. Though written in German and printed in Hamburg, Marx lived in London and toiled at the British Museum Library in Russell’s Square; Darwin lived in Downe, now in the London Borough of Bromley; and at the time Maxwell was professor at King’s College. However, I can find no record that the three ever accosted each other, even in pairs. The three men had radically different religious orientations too. Marx was an outright agnostic if not atheist and Darwin is known to have been agnostic and materialist (evolution is materialism par excellence so how could it have been otherwise) but he never said it openly to spare his wife Emma (Wedgwood) the anguish of not meeting again on the far side of the pearly gates. Maxwell however was a church going Christian who suffered evangelical conversion in 1853 at the tender age of 22; thankfully, the affliction seems to have been cured since his mind was lucid in 1865 when he made his epochal contribution to science.

Maxwell was a theoretical physicist and a mathematician; they called it natural philosophy in those days. But those who transformed the practical world were experimenters and inventors, foremost among them in electricity, Michael Faraday (1791-1867) and Nicola Tesla (1856-1943) for whom I have no space today. Faraday’s supreme achievement was electromagnetic induction which made the electric generator possible, and without it your house and all the world would be dark and modern industry unborn. A penurious technician in Sir Humphry Davies’ laboratory, he was unschooled in higher mathematics but it is said: “In his mind’s eye Faraday espied a field where others only saw action at a distance”. Magnets attract or repel, wires carrying electricity attract or repel depending on whether current flows in the same or opposite directions, but where others pondered this action at a distance, Michael Faraday saw electric and magnetic fields pervading the space in between and all around. Maxwell gave form and mathematical substance to this concept in the wonderful swell of his striking formulation.

Life and times

James, born James Clerk was the second son of advocate John Clerk and Frances Cay, a well-off Scottish family with connections. James Clerk added Maxwell to his name upon inheriting property from the Maxwell family which claimed lineage to minor peers. His alma mater was Edinburgh University; others who sport the same old-boy’s tie include David Hume (philosophy), Joseph Lister (medicine), Alexander Graham Bell (telephony), authors Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holms fame) and briefly Darwin. Julius Nyerere is also an old-boy. While still in school, at the age of 14 he wrote a mathematical paper which was presented to the Edinburgh Royal Society by a university professor since young James Clerk, still in the short-pants version of the kilt, was deemed too young to do it himself!

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) was peripatetic, holding positions at Cambridge, Marischal College Aberdeen, King’s College London, and finally Cambridge again as the first Cavendish Professor – later Cavendish chair incumbents include J.J. Thompson (discoverer of the electron) and Rutherford who, colloquially speaking, ‘split the atom’. The Cavendish Chair is not to be confused with the older more celebrated Lucasian Professorship, Newton’s chair; among its later occupants were Charles Babbage, Paul Dirac and Stephen Hawking.

Here is an extract from Wikipedia: “Maxwell is considered by many physicists to be the 19th-century scientist who had the greatest influence on 20th-century physics. His contributions are of the same magnitude as those of Newton and Einstein. In the millennium poll—a survey of the 100 most prominent physicists—Maxwell was voted the third greatest physicist of all time, behind only Newton and Einstein. On the centennial of Maxwell’s birthday, Einstein described Maxwell’s work as the “most profound and the most fruitful physics since the time of Newton”. Einstein had a photograph of Maxwell on his study wall alongside pictures of Faraday and Newton.

Photonics manufacturing in Lanka

Should the government look into the possibility of photonics (light emitting devices called LEDs, optical fibres, lasers, precision mirrors, connectors, and thousand of components) manufacture in Lanka? For serendipitous reasons the answer may be in the affirmative. The making of mainstream electronic chips is saturated – apart from the US and Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea and a few others have cornered the field. Nearly 100% of global electronic and computer chips are supplied by a few countries; there is no way Lanka can break in. Fortunately however there is a niche opening for photonic products thanks to the prevailing immature state of photonics manufacture and research in India at this stage in that countries industrial modernisation. Lanka may be able to cash in on the niche, or at least the matter needs to be explored. Our domestic market is miniscule; it is exports that we have to bear in mind through joint ventures with India and the global photonics giants that India will have to engage with.

Here is the reason why we may be able to cash in on this fortuitous opportunity. India has only 25 photonics manufacturers employing in total about 200 engineers and 1000 technicians (this may be a little dated). Photonics companies are clustered around universities and research institutes in Bangalore, Cochin and Hyderabad in the south. India is also home to design centres of global entities such as US giant IPG Photonics, France’s Alcatel-Lucent and smaller Honeywell, Cisco, Cienna, Tyco Electronics and Alphion.  Compared to China, India’s photonics manufacturing capability is nearly zero, but its domestic market and export potential are sizable. If photonics takes off in India in the next decade, as it surely must, Lanka will be no competitor but could be a supportive partner. Why not Lankan science parks and manufacturing facilities supplementing Bangalore and Cochin?

India has to, will have to, make sizable investments in all aspects of photonic and optical fibre technology; it will have to enter ventures with the best of the best in the US, Canada and Germany; a side-show with Lanka will be win-win for both sides. LED chip and LED packaging are the easiest lines to get started and one can anticipate exploding demand in India, but there is no need for Lanka to limit itself to the low-tech end. If where China has already gone is where India will have to go, or even half way, the future promises formidable growth. So let me end with a few words about the status of photonics manufacturing and research in China.

The number of people working in photonics is huge and the Chinese state provides financial support and fosters industry oriented and fundamental research. State Key Labs (SKL) – there are 220 in various fields – are the institutions through which the country hopes to surge forward. The SKL system is a measure of its major research commitment and capability. There are 27 SKLs involved in optoelectronics and lasers. Research universities prosper thanks to government planning (Changchun), or strategic location (Wuhan, Shanghai, Beijing). SKLs also benefit from open links to top institutions all over the world. Beijing has the largest number of SKLs but lags Wuhan in photonics. Simple devices like LEDs and LCDs (liquid crystal display) have large global market potential and Chinese exporters are challenging multinational companies.

India lacks even a fraction of this, but has no option but to follow the pied-piper. Can Lanka play its cards to cash in precisely because India is a late starter? China is not going to divert its top photonics manufacturing and research capability this far across the oceans to a location separated by just 22 miles of shallow water from a strategic rival. Big people in our private sector and government talk a lot about export orientation and high tech investment, but do any of them engage in lateral thinking or mull over these matters a little more in the concrete? Eventually photonics, of course, may not be the best or the right choice, but are they concretely looking at any options at all?

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Latest comments

  • 4
    1

    Prof. Kumar David

    RE: Celebrating 150 Years Of James Clerk Maxwell

    Thanks for the write up on Clark Maxwell and the Maxwell’s equations of Electromagnetic Radiation on its 150th anniversary.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maxwell%27s_equations

    On the Question can Sri Lanka get into the field of optics?

    Very difficult, as we do not have the critical mass of Physicists and Engineers. Furthermore, there are other cultural factors as well.

    Another issue, is the low average IQ of 79 for Sri Lankans does not help either.

    Sri Lanka needs to concentrate in areas where we have a comparative advantage, compared to the competition.

    • 4
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      Indeed Kumare David – there is a total absence of CREATIVE THINKING on the economy in Sri Lanka today.

      The economic agenda including the research agenda is set by the con experts of the UN, WOrld Bank and IMF that actually under-develop countries rather than enable them to become real knowledge economies. In any case the IMF and World bank and UN need to be held responsible for the world inequality pandemic that is one of the root causes of the crisis in Africa and the middle east and the reason for violence coming to roost in France and the refugee crisis in Europe – when in fact Africa lived with French and European colonialism/terrorism/ de-development for generations!

      A report by Mackinsey Co. makes clear that the Westen Capitalist countries can keep their development advantage if they make sure that they monopolize research and development and block REAL knowledge transfer.

      Instead development aid and the UN markets pseudo research and development and knowledge and distracts stupid third world policy makers. The so called Ministers of Economic development – Harsha de Silva and Ravi K are so smitten with the half truths that the IMF, World Bank and UN come up with and bought by their various overseas conference and talking shop trips that real KNOWLEDGE BASED development is nowhere in sight in Sri Lanka at this time.

  • 2
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    Silica sand is mined and then exported without value addition.

    Silica is used in many electronic components even solar panels.

    I think opportunities are there but not known by possible investors.

  • 2
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    I wish to use this space to congratulate Prof. Kumar David for providing the intellectual lead to dislodge the venal Rajapakse dictatorship in their dream of dynastic rule for a very long time. Kumar’s
    regular writing in these pages, suggesting a single-issue candidate (abolishing of the Excecutive Presidency) I believe, inspired the late and revered Monk Ven. Maduluwawe Sobita Thero to take the idea forward.

    Kumar sets an example for other learned men and women to take part in discussions affecting the National good. That is an area in which committed LSSP leaders from the beginning assisted the growth of democracy here.

    Kettikaran

  • 0
    2

    This is the first time I have come across a guy who gets orgasms by looking at equations! Anyway David, have fun!!

  • 2
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    If Sri Lanka is to move forward, it should take full advantage of the proximity of India, its giant neighbour. Being India phobic will be only detrimental to the long term interests of the country.
    Sengodan. M

  • 1
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    A good article ruined by hate speech from Kumar David who normally rails against anything communal: “Maxwell however was a church going Christian who suffered evangelical conversion in 1853 at the tender age of 22; thankfully, the affliction seems to have been cured since his mind was lucid in 1865 when he made his epochal contribution to science.”

    Advice: Learn from the Bengali adage about the cow that gave thick tasty milk and then by accident allowed a drop of urine to fall in the milk bucket.

    A couple of minor comments. A bit of careless writing in: ”Faraday’s supreme achievement was electromagnetic induction which made the electric generator possible, and without it your house and all the world would be dark and modern industry unborn.”

    Faraday did not invent induction. Induction preceded Faraday “from the beginning.” Faraday merely formalized the laws of induction. The motor/generator could have been invented without Faraday’s law. But to predict a motor’s or generator’s behavior and thereby design it well would be impossible without his law.

    Besides, modern industry began with things mechanical like the steam engine rather than things electrical.

    • 2
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      Another name that comes up is Nicola Tesla, who gave us what we today cannot live without, ie electricity distributed to every home in the country. Every gadget in the house is run on electricity, and even some cars run exclusively on electricity. Theoretical physics gave birth to an ubiquitous utility, yet, he died a near-pauper because he’d torn off his contract with Westinghouse, when the company claimed inability to pay his royalties. I wonder how many of us had even heard the name while at school in the 50’s and the 60’s.
      Interestingly he was the son of a Christian priest too, though without the advantages of Maxwell.

  • 1
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    If Maxwell was from SL, he would have found magnetic monopoles.

    del.B=nonzero

    Optics is the future and SL govt should invest in it.

  • 1
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    A person – a scientist – who can understand this article should be Minister of Science.
    But this will never happen – some clueless politician as minister will appoint a Corporation with a Board of Directors whose first task would be to purchase expensive cars, appoint security officers and build/rent palatial offices for the ‘ministry’.
    And, the corruption and waste will commence.

    Our scientists in universities have other problems – especially of survival, in the rat-race called the university system.
    See what happened to former UGC chair & husband – both have gone into oblivion.
    No government has so far consulted our scientists about anything.

  • 0
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    Justice.

    Your Line….
    No government has so far consulted our scientists about anything…

    True.Very True!
    Instead Ministry Secretaries are consulted Morning,Noon and Night.They would not know the difference between James Clerk Maxwell and Maxwell Paranagama!

  • 0
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    Kumar, it is too late to teach us these. You had your chance to do so when we were in the Efac but you never even tried, probably because you did not understand these yourself. You could not have helped it because these equations were only about 100 years old at that time. It has taken you 50 years to understand them. You are fully enlightened now. Congratulations.

    Going back to that era, we recall now that you undestood Marx and Engels just like Bahu.

    Look at those equations again. Do you see how magnetic quantities are given equal prominence as electrical quantities? That is what you should have done in EFac. Then it would have been a true Sama Samaja.

    That is why CEB is struggling to understand what caused the recent blackout. They, like you do not understand what reactive power is. Why? Because you left out the mysterious magnetic quantities in your teachings.

    • 0
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      May be Kumar David talked more than he ought to have in class about Karl Marx. But to fault his knowledge of electrical engineering is not at all convincing. Do you know that he is a rare IEEE(US) Fellow for his technical contributions in Power Engineering? Most British IEE Fellows(to which category Kumar also belongs) are mere Senior Members of the IEEE.

      • 0
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        Your comment reminds me of quote from Groucho Marx. On being offered a honorary membership of a prestigious New York Club he refused the offer “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member”.

        I am a Member of IEEE. Don’t look up the list in IEEE because I am using here a pseudonym. I feel the same way as Groucho, but I had to apply and get it because my job depends on it.

        Kumar is a highly intelligent guy and though a lecturer, was humble enough to be on Machan level with us, outside the class.

        His problem and that of many Sri Lanka University lecturers is that they do not have much industrial experience. Theory bound and with some ( I do not mean AKD) not so good in that too, they produce half baked graduates who are not at all prepared for industry. This is not the case in USA, Singapore etc.

        • 1
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          IEEE Fellow grade is not honorary. It is earned. Many have tried and failed.

          IEEE Membership is cheap. Even students get it. IEE Membership and IEE Fellow need work experience.

          I have heard of IEE Fellow being a job requirement, never of IEEE membership. In the US, if they ask for professional qualifications for a job, they ask for PE, professional Engineer.

          • 0
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            Sorry is you confused my anecdote with the honorary thing.

            In the place I am working, one should have a recognized professional qualification. IESL is not.

  • 0
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    EDWIN.

    Were you at Akbar? We may have bumped into each other in the canteen run by Corporal!

    • 0
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      Yes I was at Akbar

  • 1
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    Setting up LEDs (light-emitting diodes) manufacturing is another hair-brained idea of Kuram Daivd. it is a very matuare technology and the most WE can do is to invite the well-healed companies who developed them first (GE, Rochester-KODAK, SONY, Siemans etc
    to set up their plants here. But malaysia offers 15 year Tax holdiays with gurantee of no labour trouble. Can Sri lanka guarantee such anti-socialist polcies? can Sri alnka gaurantee anything for even one or two years? The LED market is now dominated by China, Taivan, South Korea tec, as well as USA and Germany which hold the high-end market.

    We dpn’t have the gallium, aluminum and the other needed trace chemicals needed for many of the LEDS if you go via the GaAs/AlAs epitaxy route. If you arw-e going via the organic electronics, then again we cannot do that because we don’t know how to value add even to out coconut oil, paddy, rubber (or ilmenite). We haven’t still started to exploit the sunlight we have in abundance.

    This is the 150th year of light. So It is a good thing KD decided to celebrate Clark Maxwell. He should also note that around the time maxwell and Farday did this constructive work advancing human knowledge, Karl Marx put out half-false statements as if they are complete truths, and the world had to suffer a Stalin, a Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pots, Wijeweeras and many other murderous comrades that KD should think about.

  • 0
    0

    Kumar,
    You must be in the good books of Yahapalanaya. Perhaps that is the reason you decided to write about something different after writing so much to put them in power. Could you do a favour to the Efac students both Pera and Moratuwa?. Please ask the government to introduce a compulsory subject on the basic knowledge of computer and computer programming (and also to give promotions to academics strictly on the basis of their research work). I wrote a letter to MR’s government a couple of years ago and all I got was some anonymous calls.
    If you succeed this will be to your credit.

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