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Maxwell’s Equations

Maxwell’s Equations: Electromagnetic Waves Predicted and Observed

The Scotsman James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879) is regarded as the greatest theoretical physicist of the 19th century. (See this figure.) Although he died young, Maxwell not only formulated a complete electromagnetic theory, represented by Maxwell’s equations, he also developed the kinetic theory of gases and made significant contributions to the understanding of color vision and the nature of Saturn’s rings.

Maxwell brought together all the work that had been done by brilliant physicists such as Oersted, Coulomb, Gauss, and Faraday, and added his own insights to develop the overarching theory of electromagnetism. Maxwell’s equations are paraphrased here in words because their mathematical statement is beyond the level of this text. However, the equations illustrate how apparently simple mathematical statements can elegantly unite and express a multitude of concepts—why mathematics is the language of science.

Maxwell’s Equations

  1. Electric field lines originate on positive charges and terminate on negative charges. The electric field is defined as the force per unit charge on a test charge, and the strength of the force is related to the electric constant \({\epsilon }_{0}\), also known as the permittivity of free space. From Maxwell’s first equation we obtain a special form of Coulomb’s law known as Gauss’s law for electricity.
  2. Magnetic field lines are continuous, having no beginning or end. No magnetic monopoles are known to exist. The strength of the magnetic force is related to the magnetic constant \({\mu }_{0}\), also known as the permeability of free space. This second of Maxwell’s equations is known as Gauss’s law for magnetism.
  3. A changing magnetic field induces an electromotive force (emf) and, hence, an electric field. The direction of the emf opposes the change. This third of Maxwell’s equations is Faraday’s law of induction, and includes Lenz’s law.
  4. Magnetic fields are generated by moving charges or by changing electric fields. This fourth of Maxwell’s equations encompasses Ampere’s law and adds another source of magnetism—changing electric fields.

Maxwell’s equations encompass the major laws of electricity and magnetism. What is not so apparent is the symmetry that Maxwell introduced in his mathematical framework. Especially important is his addition of the hypothesis that changing electric fields create magnetic fields. This is exactly analogous (and symmetric) to Faraday’s law of induction and had been suspected for some time, but fits beautifully into Maxwell’s equations.

Symmetry is apparent in nature in a wide range of situations. In contemporary research, symmetry plays a major part in the search for sub-atomic particles using massive multinational particle accelerators such as the new Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

Making Connections: Unification of Forces

Maxwell’s complete and symmetric theory showed that electric and magnetic forces are not separate, but different manifestations of the same thing—the electromagnetic force. This classical unification of forces is one motivation for current attempts to unify the four basic forces in nature—the gravitational, electrical, strong, and weak nuclear forces.

Since changing electric fields create relatively weak magnetic fields, they could not be easily detected at the time of Maxwell’s hypothesis. Maxwell realized, however, that oscillating charges, like those in AC circuits, produce changing electric fields. He predicted that these changing fields would propagate from the source like waves generated on a lake by a jumping fish.

The waves predicted by Maxwell would consist of oscillating electric and magnetic fields—defined to be an electromagnetic wave (EM wave). Electromagnetic waves would be capable of exerting forces on charges great distances from their source, and they might thus be detectable. Maxwell calculated that electromagnetic waves would propagate at a speed given by the equation

\(c=\cfrac{1}{\sqrt{{\mu }_{0}{\epsilon }_{0}}}.\)

When the values for \({\mu }_{0}\) and \({\epsilon }_{0}\) are entered into the equation for \(c\), we find that

\(c=\cfrac{1}{\sqrt{(8\text{.}\text{85}×{\text{10}}^{-\text{12}}\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}\cfrac{{\text{C}}^{2}}{\text{N}\cdot {\text{m}}^{2}})(4\pi ×{\text{10}}^{-7}\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}\cfrac{\text{T}\cdot \text{m}}{\text{A}})}}=\text{3}\text{.}\text{00}×{\text{10}}^{8}\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}\text{m/s},\)

which is the speed of light. In fact, Maxwell concluded that light is an electromagnetic wave having such wavelengths that it can be detected by the eye.

Other wavelengths should exist—it remained to be seen if they did. If so, Maxwell’s theory and remarkable predictions would be verified, the greatest triumph of physics since Newton. Experimental verification came within a few years, but not before Maxwell’s death.


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