Book Review: The Man Who Changed Everything by Basil Mahon

I’m not normally a big fan of reading biographies, but I think that’s because, early on in life, I was exposed to some ghost-written autobiographies that were neither illuminating nor interesting. But my interest was re-kindled a couple of years ago when I read The Strangest Man, a biography of the physicist Paul Dirac. Though a review does not exist on this blog, I would highly recommend it to you.

Anyway, back to this book. This is a fairly recent biography of James Clerk Maxwell, another of my scientific heroes. While he is a name familiar to many (though the author labours under the impression that Maxwell is unknown to all but professional scientists) my main dealing with him was whilst I was doing my maths degree. Having done a lot of vector calculus which Maxwell had helped develop and formalise, I opted for a 3rd year module in Electromagnetism where we applied the vector calculus we had previously learned and trod in Maxwell’s footsteps, deriving the mathematical basis for electromagnetic theory.

As for the man himself, however, I would confess relative ignorance. Aside from the work which made him famous, all I knew of him was that he was a christian and that he was the driving force behind the foundation of the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge. The latter two elements combining to explain the inscription above the door, “Magna opera Domini exquisite in omnes voluntates ejus.” (“The works of the Lord are great sought out of all them that have pleasure therein.”)

Yet Mahon’s biography is almost entirely work-based. While the account of Maxwell’s early life makes for good reading with some insights into Maxwell’s the man, the last 2/3rds of the book is little more than a list of achievements and activities. The man himself becomes just a name and the reader is not afforded an insight into his life or his thoughts. The only exception to this is when Mahon gives us little snippets of poetry that Maxwell wrote.

Possibly the most frustrating element is that Mahon doesn’t give Maxwell’s equations of electrodynamics in full. He gives a simplified form (in empty space) and then tells the reader that to include electric charges and currents they are slightly altered, without actually giving the full equations. This feels like a real let down, given that was the crowning achievement of Maxwell’s career.

The writing style is easy enough to read and should be accessible to anyone who was reasonably good at physics at school – no college or university training is required. But this has cost the reader the ability to see Maxwell in much detail. Instead of being a 3-dimensional figure we can reach out and touch, grasp or turn over in our hands, he is presented to us as a figure in a glass box. He can be admired and one may view him from a limited number of angles, yet he remains tantalisingly out of reach.


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