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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index M > James Clerk Maxwell Quotes > Experiment

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James Clerk Maxwell
(13 Jun 1831 - 5 Nov 1879)

Scottish mathematician and physicist whose researches united electricity and magnetism into the concept of the electro-magnetic field.


James Clerk Maxwell Quotes on Experiment (10 quotes)

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An Experiment, like every other event which takes place, is a natural phenomenon; but in a Scientific Experiment the circumstances are so arranged that the relations between a particular set of phenomena may be studied to the best advantage.
— James Clerk Maxwell
'General Considerations Concerning Scientific Apparatus', 1876. In W. D. Niven (ed.), The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell (1890), Vol. 2, 505.
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Any opinion as to the form in which the energy of gravitation exists in space is of great importance, and whoever can make his opinion probable will have, made an enormous stride in physical speculation. The apparent universality of gravitation, and the equality of its effects on matter of all kinds are most remarkable facts, hitherto without exception; but they are purely experimental facts, liable to be corrected by a single observed exception. We cannot conceive of matter with negative inertia or mass; but we see no way of accounting for the proportionality of gravitation to mass by any legitimate method of demonstration. If we can see the tails of comets fly off in the direction opposed to the sun with an accelerated velocity, and if we believe these tails to be matter and not optical illusions or mere tracks of vibrating disturbance, then we must admit a force in that direction, and we may establish that it is caused by the sun if it always depends upon his position and distance.
— James Clerk Maxwell
Letter to William Huggins (13 Oct 1868). In P. M. Hannan (ed.), The Scientific Letters and Papers of James Clerk Maxwell (1995), Vol. 2, 1862-1873, 451-2.
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But when we face the great questions about gravitation Does it require time? Is it polar to the 'outside of the universe' or to anything? Has it any reference to electricity? or does it stand on the very foundation of matter–mass or inertia? then we feel the need of tests, whether they be comets or nebulae or laboratory experiments or bold questions as to the truth of received opinions.
— James Clerk Maxwell
Letter to Michael Faraday, 9 Nov 1857. In P. M. Harman (ed.), The Scientific Letters and Papers of James Clerk Maxwell (1990), Vol. 1, 1846-1862, 551-2.
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It was a great step in science when men became convinced that, in order to understand the nature of things, they must begin by asking, not whether a thing is good or bad, noxious or beneficial, but of what kind it is? And how much is there of it? Quality and Quantity were then first recognised as the primary features to be observed in scientific inquiry.
— James Clerk Maxwell
'Address to the Mathematical and Physical Sections of the British Association, Liverpool, 15 Sep 1870', The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell (1890 edition, reprint 2003), Vol. 2, 217.
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My theory of electrical forces is that they are called into play in insulating media by slight electric displacements, which put certain small portions of the medium into a state of distortion which, being resisted by the elasticity of the medium, produces an electromotive force ... I suppose the elasticity of the sphere to react on the electrical matter surrounding it, and press it downwards.
From the determination by Kohlrausch and Weber of the numerical relation between the statical and magnetic effects of electricity, I have determined the elasticity of the medium in air, and assuming that it is the same with the luminiferous ether I have determined the velocity of propagation of transverse vibrations.
The result is
193088 miles per second
(deduced from electrical & magnetic experiments).
Fizeau has determined the velocity of light
= 193118 miles per second
by direct experiment.
This coincidence is not merely numerical. I worked out the formulae in the country, before seeing Webers [sic] number, which is in millimetres, and I think we have now strong reason to believe, whether my theory is a fact or not, that the luminiferous and the electromagnetic medium are one.
— James Clerk Maxwell
Letter to Michael Faraday (19 Oct 1861). In P. M. Harman (ed.), The Scientific Letters and Papers of James Clerk Maxwell (1990), Vol. 1, 1846-1862, 684-6.
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The equations of dynamics completely express the laws of the historical method as applied to matter, but the application of these equations implies a perfect knowledge of all the data. But the smallest portion of matter which we can subject to experiment consists of millions of molecules, not one of which ever becomes individually sensible to us. We cannot, therefore, ascertain the actual motion of anyone of these molecules; so that we are obliged to abandon the strict historical method, and to adopt the statistical method of dealing with large groups of molecules … Thus molecular science teaches us that our experiments can never give us anything more than statistical information, and that no law derived from them can pretend to absolute precision. But when we pass from the contemplation of our experiments to that of the molecules themselves, we leave a world of chance and change, and enter a region where everything is certain and immutable.
— James Clerk Maxwell
'Molecules' (1873). In W. D. Niven (ed.), The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell (1890), Vol. 2, 374.
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The experimental investigation by which Ampere established the law of the mechanical action between electric currents is one of the most brilliant achievements in science. The whole theory and experiment, seems as if it had leaped, full grown and full armed, from the brain of the 'Newton of Electricity'. It is perfect in form, and unassailable in accuracy, and it is summed up in a formula from which all the phenomena may be deduced, and which must always remain the cardinal formula of electro-dynamics.
— James Clerk Maxwell
A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism (1873), Vol. 2, 162.
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The experimental investigation by which Ampère established the law of the mechanical action between electric currents is one of the most brilliant achievements in science. The whole, theory and experiment, seems as if it had leaped, full grown and full armed, from the brain of the “Newton of Electricity”. It is perfect in form, and unassailable in accuracy, and it is summed up in a formula from which all the phenomena may be deduced, and which must always remain the cardinal formula of electro-dynamics.
— James Clerk Maxwell
In James Clerk Maxwell, Electricity and Magnetism (1881), Vol. 2, 163
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The University of Cambridge, in accordance with that law of its evolution, by which, while maintaining the strictest continuity between the successive phases of its history, it adapts itself with more or less promptness to the requirements of the times, has lately instituted a course of Experimental Physics.
— James Clerk Maxwell
'Introductory Lecture on Experimental Physics', (1871). In W. D. Niven (ed.), The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell (1890), Vol. 2, 241.Course;Experiment;Cambridge;History;Promptness;Adapt;Requirement
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This characteristic of modern experiments–that they consist principally of measurements,–is so prominent, that the opinion seems to have got abroad, that in a few years all the great physical constants will have been approximately estimated, and that the only occupation which will then be left to men of science will be to carry these measurements to another place of decimals … But we have no right to think thus of the unsearchable riches of creation, or of the untried fertility of those fresh minds into which these riches will continue to be poured.
— James Clerk Maxwell
Maxwell strongly disagreed with the prominent opinion, and was attacking it. Thus, he was saying he did not believe in such a future of merely making “measurements to another place of decimals.” In 'Introductory Lecture on Experimental Physics', (Oct 1871). In W.D. Niven (ed.), The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell (1890), Vol. 2, 244. Note that his reference to making measurements to another place of decimals is often seen extracted as a short quote without the context showing - obscuring the fact that he actually despised that opinion.
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See also:

Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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