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Why James Clerk Maxwell should be the new face of the £50 note

The Bank of England recently announced plans for a new £50 note, and have called for the public to nominate figures who have made significant contributions to science.

King’s is taking this opportunity to highlight some of the esteemed scientists who have worked here as staff or students, leaving behind a lasting legacy.

This week we’ll be putting a spotlight on scientists from a range of fields, and we hope that you’ll consider nominating them for this prestigious honour.

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79)

The five years Maxwell spent at King’s as Professor of Natural Philosophy can be considered as the most successful years of his career. Between 1860-65, Maxwell made his name as one of the world’s greatest physicists when he demonstrated that magnetism, electricity and light were different manifestations of the same fundamental laws.

The findings of his research, which he demonstrated through a series of equations, went on to be used by Albert Einstein 40 years later when he developed the Theory of Relativity.

Maxwell also transformed photography as we know it today when he demonstrated the first ever colour photograph.

It must be someone who has contributed to the field of science

Maxwell was a pioneer in the field of physics.

His discovery of electromagnetism has been vital for the creation of technologies including radio, television, telephone, microwaves and x-rays.

He is also renowned for creating the first colour photograph, having developed the concept of the ‘three-colour method’. Maxwell recognised that all colours in nature can be counterfeited to the human eye by mixing red, green and blue in proportions which stimulate the three types of cells in the eye to the same degrees that the ‘real’ colours do.

Therefore, if three colourless photos were taken through red, green and blue filters and superimposed on a screen, the result would be an image reproducing all the colours in the original scene. This method is still used in chemical and electronic photographic processing.

Maxwell was awarded the Royal Society’s Rumford Medal for his work on colour and colour-blindness.  

When Albert Einstein was asked if he had stood on the shoulders of Newton, he replied: "No, I stand on Maxwell’s shoulders."

The person must have shaped thought, innovation, leadership or values in the UK

When Einstein was asked if he had stood on the shoulders of Newton, he replied: ‘No, I stand on Maxwell’s shoulders.’

In 1865, Maxwell experimented with the notion that magnetism and electricity were interlinked, soon discovering that electric and magnetic fields together create a wave of energy that can move through empty space at the speed of light.

Maxwell’s research into electromagnetism went on to transform scientific thinking and influenced the creation of x-rays and radar.

Years after Maxwell’s death, Heinrich Hertz used his findings to prove the existence of electromagnetic waves then discovering radio waves. Scientists went on to further develop this research and created the wireless radio.

The individual cannot be alive

Sadly, he did not live to see the success of his theories on electromagnetism, as he died at the age of 48 from abdominal cancer.

He was known for being a humble man, which may help us understand why he wasn’t greatly appreciated during his time.

Lastly, the figure must inspire people, not divide them

Maxwell’s discoveries have continued to influence and inspire scientists and innovators across the world.

He was known admirably by colleagues as ‘Maestro Maxwell’. Albert Einstein, who spoke very fondly of the great physicist, described Maxwell’s discoveries in electromagnetics as ‘the most profound and the most fruitful that physics had experienced since the time of Newton’.

‘One scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell.’ said Einstein.

At King’s, the James Clerk Maxwell Building at Waterloo was named in his honor. A student society and the Clerk Maxwell Chair of Theoretical Physics also commemorate Maxwell in their titles.

Vote for Professor Maxwell on the Bank of England website:

https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/banknotes/50-pound-note-nominations

 

Learn more about Maxwell: 

  • https://www.kcl.ac.uk/aboutkings/history/famouspeople/jamesclerkmaxwell.aspx
  • https://www.kcl.ac.uk/newsevents/news/newsrecords/2011/04Apr/JamesClerkMaxwell.aspx
  • https://www.kcl.ac.uk/nms/depts/physics/Student-Societies/Maxwell-Society.aspx