Friday, December 26, 2008

James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) is an anomaly among scientists. Charles Darwin was Maxwell’s contemporary, but the similarity in their work and worldviews ends there. While many scientists in the early years of the Scientific Revolution, beginning with the 17th century, were unashamed Christians who did not hesitate to express their faith, by the mid-19th century that picture had changed. Enlightenment thinking, with its positive liberating effects on the human spirit, gave many people, scientists included, a sense of self-sufficiency and self-empowerment. At the risk of oversimplifying things, their “need” for and acknowledgement of God as an integral part of their view of natural reality, was diminished. This new outlook nurtured and strengthened the conclusions of naturalistic scientists. The germination of Darwin’s broad evolutionary proposals found fertile ground. James Clerk Maxwell stands apart as exceptional.

Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism incorporated and unified the pioneering discoveries of electricity and magnetism from the previous 50 years. He discovered that visible light was an electromagnetic wave. He taught that many different electromagnetic wavelengths, longer and shorter than those of visible light, should be possible and anticipated their discovery. The complete range of wavelengths, from long to short, became known as the electromagnetic spectrum. Shortly after Maxwell’s death, radio waves and X-rays were demonstrated. Application of knowledge of the electromagnetic spectrum is a landmark advance in science. Without such application, our 21st century lives would be very different. Albert Einstein pronounced Maxwell’s work “the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.”

The story of James Clerk Maxwell is one of unparalleled inspiration. As a young man he was gifted with curiosity and creativity. He never relinquished respect for the spiritual truths of his parents’ Presbyterian and Anglican traditions. Later, at age 22, he experienced what has been called an “evangelical” conversion. Thereafter, he never shied from expressing his deeply held Christian faith. There was never a hint of “God-of-the-gaps” explanations for any scientific principle he ever discovered. In addition to his cornerstone theory of electromagnetism which sets him apart, he investigated many other topics, including the nature of Saturn’s rings, color photography, viscosity of gases, and theory of heat.

He was ahead of his time in rejecting the use of bad science to promote a particular interpretation of Genesis scripture, pointing out that ongoing scientific discoveries would enlighten interpretation of scripture. He anticipated the modern discussion of design in the natural world by observing and describing “the ordered uniformity rather than the peculiarity and complexity of nature, as signs of the creator.” In many letters to his wife and others his profound faith was expressed: “Think what God has determined to do to all those who submit themselves to His righteousness and are willing to receive His gift. They are to be conformed to the image of His Son…” His advice to scientists and non-scientists alike was suffused with a Christian worldview: “I think that men of science as well as other men need to learn from Christ, and I think that Christians whose minds are scientific are bound to study science that their view of the glory of God may be as extensive as their being is capable of.”

Most science historians would acknowledge that Maxwell’s contributions to science stand out as perhaps pre-eminent over the centuries from Newton to Einstein. But many writers fail to mention James Clerk Maxwell’s Christian faith. The philosophy of modern secular science is governed by the NOMA principle, in which science and faith are considered non-overlapping, separate realms. After he died, one of his colleagues wrote: “We his contemporaries at college, have seen in him high powers of mind and great capacity and original views, conjoined with deep humility before his God, reverent submission to His will, and hearty belief in the love and atonement of that Divine Savior Who was his portion and comforter in trouble and sickness.” Like Maxwell, most Christians working in 21st century science would not condone separation of the realms as one of their paramount operational principles. Rather, they would endorse the Apostle Paul’s statement in Acts 17:28 as a guiding principle in every aspect of their lives: “In Him we live, and move and have our being.”