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

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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 Matter (12 quotes)

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A strict materialist believes that everything depends on the motion of matter. He knows the form of the laws of motion though he does not know all their consequences when applied to systems of unknown complexity.
Now one thing in which the materialist (fortified with dynamical knowledge) believes is that if every motion great & small were accurately reversed, and the world left to itself again, everything would happen backwards the fresh water would collect out of the sea and run up the rivers and finally fly up to the clouds in drops which would extract heat from the air and evaporate and afterwards in condensing would shoot out rays of light to the sun and so on. Of course all living things would regrede from the grave to the cradle and we should have a memory of the future but not of the past.
The reason why we do not expect anything of this kind to take place at any time is our experience of irreversible processes, all of one kind, and this leads to the doctrine of a beginning & an end instead of cyclical progression for ever.
— James Clerk Maxwell
Letter to Mark Pattison (7 Apr 1868). In P. M. Hannan (ed.), The Scientific Letters and Papers of James Clerk Maxwell (1995), Vol. 2, 1862-1873, 360-1.
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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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For the evolution of science by societies the main requisite is the perfect freedom of communication between each member and anyone of the others who may act as a reagent.
The gaseous condition is exemplified in the soiree, where the members rush about confusedly, and the only communication is during a collision, which in some instances may be prolonged by button-holing.
The opposite condition, the crystalline, is shown in the lecture, where the members sit in rows, while science flows in an uninterrupted stream from a source which we take as the origin. This is radiation of science. Conduction takes place along the series of members seated round a dinner table, and fixed there for several hours, with flowers in the middle to prevent any cross currents.
The condition most favourable to life is an intermediate plastic or colloidal condition, where the order of business is (1) Greetings and confused talk; (2) A short communication from one who has something to say and to show; (3) Remarks on the communication addressed to the Chair, introducing matters irrelevant to the communication but interesting to the members; (4) This lets each member see who is interested in his special hobby, and who is likely to help him; and leads to (5) Confused conversation and examination of objects on the table.
I have not indicated how this programme is to be combined with eating.
— James Clerk Maxwell
Letter to William Grylls Adams (3 Dec 1873). In P. M. Harman (ed.), The Scientific Letters and Papers of James Clerk Maxwell (1995), Vol. 2, 1862-1873, 949-50.
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Gases are distinguished from other forms of matter, not only by their power of indefinite expansion so as to fill any vessel, however large, and by the great effect heat has in dilating them, but by the uniformity and simplicity of the laws which regulate these changes.
— James Clerk Maxwell
Theory of Heat (1904), 31.
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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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Science appears to us with a very different aspect after we have found out that it is not in lecture rooms only, and by means of the electric light projected on a screen, that we may witness physical phenomena, but that we may find illustrations of the highest doctrines of science in games and gymnastics, in travelling by land and by water, in storms of the air and of the sea, and wherever there is matter in motion.
— James Clerk Maxwell
'Introductory Lecture on Experimental Physics' (1871). In W. D. Niven (ed.), The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell (1890), Vol. 2, 243.
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So many of the properties of matter, especially when in the gaseous form, can be deduced from the hypothesis that their minute parts are in rapid motion, the velocity increasing with the temperature, that the precise nature of this motion becomes a subject of rational curiosity. Daniel Bernoulli, Herapath, Joule, Kronig, Clausius, &c., have shewn that the relations between pressure, temperature and density in a perfect gas can be explained by supposing the particles move with uniform velocity in straight lines, striking against the sides of the containing vessel and thus producing pressure. (1860)
— James Clerk Maxwell
In W.D. Niven (ed.) 'Illustrations of the Dynamical Theory of Gases,' The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell, Vol 1, 377. Quoted in John David Anderson, Jr., Hypersonic and High Temperature Gas Dynamics (2000), 468.
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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 mind of man has perplexed itself with many hard questions. Is space infinite, and in what sense? Is the material world infinite in extent, and are all places within that extent equally full of matter? Do atoms exist or is matter infinitely divisible?
— James Clerk Maxwell
The Theory of Molecules', lecture to the British Association at Bradford. In The Popular Science Monthly (1874) vol. 4, 277.
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The theory I propose may therefore be called a theory of the Electromagnetic Field because it has to do with the space in the neighbourhood of the electric or magnetic bodies, and it may be called a Dynamical Theory, because it assumes that in the space there is matter in motion, by which the observed electromagnetic phenomena are produced.
— James Clerk Maxwell
'A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field' (1865). In W. D. Niven (ed.), The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell(1890), Vol. 2, 527.
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To pick a hole–say in the 2nd law of Ωcs, that if two things are in contact the hotter cannot take heat from the colder without external agency.
Now let A & B be two vessels divided by a diaphragm and let them contain elastic molecules in a state of agitation which strike each other and the sides. Let the number of particles be equal in A & B but let those in A have equal velocities, if oblique collisions occur between them their velocities will become unequal & I have shown that there will be velocities of all magnitudes in A and the same in B only the sum of the squares of the velocities is greater in A than in B.
When a molecule is reflected from the fixed diaphragm CD no work is lost or gained.
If the molecule instead of being reflected were allowed to go through a hole in CD no work would be lost or gained, only its energy would be transferred from the one vessel to the other.
Now conceive a finite being who knows the paths and velocities of all the molecules by simple inspection but who can do no work, except to open and close a hole in the diaphragm, by means of a slide without mass.
Let him first observe the molecules in A and when lie sees one coming the square of whose velocity is less than the mean sq. vel. of the molecules in B let him open a hole & let it go into B. Next let him watch for a molecule in B the square of whose velocity is greater than the mean sq. vel. in A and when it comes to the hole let him draw and slide & let it go into A, keeping the slide shut for all other molecules.
Then the number of molecules in A & B are the same as at first but the energy in A is increased and that in B diminished that is the hot system has got hotter and the cold colder & yet no work has been done, only the intelligence of a very observant and neat fingered being has been employed. Or in short if heat is the motion of finite portions of matter and if we can apply tools to such portions of matter so as to deal with them separately then we can take advantage of the different motion of different portions to restore a uniformly hot system to unequal temperatures or to motions of large masses. Only we can't, not being clever enough.
— James Clerk Maxwell
Letter to Peter Guthrie Tait (11 Dec 1867). In P. M. Harman (ed.), The Scientific Letters and Papers of James Clerk Maxwell (1995), Vol. 2, 331-2.
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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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Sophie Germain
Gertrude Elion
Ernest Rutherford
James Chadwick
Marcel Proust
William Harvey
Johann Goethe
John Keynes
Carl Gauss
Paul Feyerabend
- 90 -
Antoine Lavoisier
Lise Meitner
Charles Babbage
Ibn Khaldun
Euclid
Ralph Emerson
Robert Bunsen
Frederick Banting
Andre Ampere
Winston Churchill
- 80 -
John Locke
Bronislaw Malinowski
Bible
Thomas Huxley
Alessandro Volta
Erwin Schrodinger
Wilhelm Roentgen
Louis Pasteur
Bertrand Russell
Jean Lamarck
- 70 -
Samuel Morse
John Wheeler
Nicolaus Copernicus
Robert Fulton
Pierre Laplace
Humphry Davy
Thomas Edison
Lord Kelvin
Theodore Roosevelt
Carolus Linnaeus
- 60 -
Francis Galton
Linus Pauling
Immanuel Kant
Martin Fischer
Robert Boyle
Karl Popper
Paul Dirac
Avicenna
James Watson
William Shakespeare
- 50 -
Stephen Hawking
Niels Bohr
Nikola Tesla
Rachel Carson
Max Planck
Henry Adams
Richard Dawkins
Werner Heisenberg
Alfred Wegener
John Dalton
- 40 -
Pierre Fermat
Edward Wilson
Johannes Kepler
Gustave Eiffel
Giordano Bruno
JJ Thomson
Thomas Kuhn
Leonardo DaVinci
Archimedes
David Hume
- 30 -
Andreas Vesalius
Rudolf Virchow
Richard Feynman
James Hutton
Alexander Fleming
Emile Durkheim
Benjamin Franklin
Robert Oppenheimer
Robert Hooke
Charles Kettering
- 20 -
Carl Sagan
James Maxwell
Marie Curie
Rene Descartes
Francis Crick
Hippocrates
Michael Faraday
Srinivasa Ramanujan
Francis Bacon
Galileo Galilei
- 10 -
Aristotle
John Watson
Rosalind Franklin
Michio Kaku
Isaac Asimov
Charles Darwin
Sigmund Freud
Albert Einstein
Florence Nightingale
Isaac Newton


by Ian Ellis
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