'Dafty' genius honoured at last by his alma mater

EINSTEIN put a picture of him on his study wall - and declared his discoveries about the nature of physical reality "the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since Newton".

Yet James Clerk Maxwell has always seemed to remain one of science's under-recognised geniuses. Perhaps his own modesty, or the "difficult" nature of his scientific findings, go some way towards explaining this, although Einstein's work is also by no means easy to comprehend.

Slowly, however, ever so slowly, Maxwell is gaining the acclaim that he deserves. Among his principal champions is his alma mater, Edinburgh Academy (he was there from 1841-7), which on Friday opened its magnificent new 4.3 million James Clerk Maxwell Science Centre at Henderson Row: nine state-of-the-art laboratories for the study of biology, chemistry and physics and a modern 172-seat lecture theatre that will make science an extremely attractive prospect indeed for the school's pupils.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, an "Academical" himself observed, in his speech before unveiling a plaque to open the building, that Maxwell would have been more proud to have had the centre named after him than anything else, even though a mountain on Venus is called Maxwell Montes in his honour, there is a James Clerk Maxwell building at Edinburgh University, and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope is 4,092m up Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

The two-storey centre - designed by Sula McEwan of Lorn Macneal Architects, structural engineers SKM, services engineers KJ Tait and quantity surveyors McLeod & Aitken - has a sandstone, glass and zinc exterior, which means it does not look out of place among the original 1824 buildings.

Inside, all the bright and spacious laboratories have interactive whiteboards and laptop access points, which allow the use of software in teaching and saves note-taking time, and the most up-to-date equipment, including video cameras linked to microscopes. Bunsen burners are still strongly in evidence, and some of Maxwell's equations adorn the wall in the corridor between the main foyer and the lecture theatre.

Dr Alastair MacPherson, the head of biology at the school, is keen to extol the virtues of the whiteboard - at the same time emphasising it should be complemented by book-learning. He says it saves immense amounts of time, allowing him to get through three times as much material in a lesson, it improves teacher-pupil interaction, and serves to increase the pupils' enthusiasm.

He says recall after note-taking would not be much higher than in this kind of learning and that, in any case, his pupils are expected to use his teaching as a basis for their own individual learning.

With the number of pupils studying science falling dramatically across Scotland, much to the detriment of the country's future, staff at Edinburgh Academy justifiably believe they will buck the trend.

Roger Wightman, the Academy's director of studies, says that the centre will now raise expectations for the rest of the school's buildings, and that was a challenge he was willing to accept, given that in time it was likely to lead to improvements in the quality of the built environment for all pupils.

When Maxwell first arrived at Edinburgh Academy from the family home, Glenlair in Galloway, wearing a tweed tunic, frilly collar and square-toed shoes with brass buckles and talking in a strong Galloway accent, his fellow pupils - it seems strange to relate now - called him "dafty". But after a difficult first year he quickly demonstrated his remarkable aptitude across all subjects, winning the scripture biography prize in his second year.

He struck what were to be lifelong friendships with two other equally bright boys, Lewis Campbell and Peter Guthrie Tait.

By the age of 14 he had published his first scientific paper, about the types of curves that - using pins, string and a pencil - can be drawn on a piece of paper. The only person to have tackled the subject previously with as much insight was the French philosopher, Ren Descartes. Maxwell's work was better, and his paper was read out on his behalf at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. It is an achievement for pupils at the school to aspire to.

A spokesman for the school says: "With the construction of the James Clerk Maxwell Science Centre the Academy is making clear statements about both the importance of science within secondary education and its future at the Academy.

"In October, the academy announced its transformation to a fully co-educational school: the timing of this announcement with the opening of the science centre could hardly be more appropriate.

"For many years subjects like engineering and medicine have featured high on the destinations leaderboard of former pupils and the new science centre should help to increase that flow.

"Generations of boys and girls will benefit from a facility of which they and their teachers can be proud."


IN THE 1870s, James Clerk Maxwell wrote down four equations that were to shape the course of physics during the first half of the 20th century.

The Maxwell equations summarise the relationship between electricity and magnetism, which physicists had thought were two separate forces but which Maxwell demonstrated were in fact different aspects of the same force, called electromagnetism.

Maxwell used mathematics to demonstrate that electromagnetic waves travel through empty space at the speed of light and showed that light itself was a form of electromagnetic radiation.

Before Maxwell's work, scientists believed light moved around as waves travelling through a mysterious substance called the ether. Maxwell's equations destroyed the Victorian belief in the ether and laid the foundations for the work of Albert Einstein and Max Planck.

Maxwell was also able to predict the existence of other types of radiation that exist beyond the range of visible light, such as infrared light and ultraviolet light. He also developed the kinetic theory of gases, which is a key to modern physical chemistry.