Colombo Telegraph

Celebrating 150 Years Of James Clerk Maxwell

By 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 The advent of special relativity did not bypass Maxwell’s equations in the way that general relativity superseded Newton’s laws of gravitation; a relativistic reformulation of Maxwell’s original version has sufficed!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.

For 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?

Back to Home page