Page last updated at 00:20 GMT, Tuesday, 25 November 2008

The science world's unsung hero?

By Giancarlo Rinaldi
South of Scotland reporter, BBC Scotland news website

Clerk Maxwell statue
A new statue to James Clerk Maxwell has been unveiled in Edinburgh (pic: Morag Kinniburgh)

Ask the man in the street to name his top three physicists of all time and he might - like me - be struggling.

It is easy enough to come up with Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton but many of us might then have to start playing for time.

My Italian ancestry would make me inclined to throw the name of Galileo Galilei into the ring.

However, much closer to home comes a less-heralded contender for a place in the top trio of physics.

The name James Clerk Maxwell provokes more blank stares than it should.

However, in scientific circles his achievements stand comfortably beside any other greats of the field.

Greatest physicists

Four years ago - you could be forgiven if you missed it - his theory of electromagnetism was voted the joint-top equation of all time.

Prior to that he landed third spot in a poll of the greatest physicists of all time.

James Clerk Maxwell's work led to the development of the telephone and television

Now he has been recognised by the unveiling of the first statue to be put up in Edinburgh's George Street for almost a century.

A passer-by might well ask what the former Edinburgh Academy and University of Edinburgh student did to deserve such an honour.

They would not have to look far to receive an answer.

The mobile phone, satellite communications, television and radio were all made possible by his work.

By anybody's reckoning that is an impressive list.

As Albert Einstein put it: "One scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell."

Born in Edinburgh in 1831, Clerk Maxwell's family moved to Glenlair near Corsock in Galloway when he was a child.

He returned to Edinburgh for much of his education before heading to the University of Cambridge.

James Clerk Maxwell
James Clerk Maxwell's work paved the way for many modern inventions

He was later elected to the Royal Society and occupied a role as professor of natural philosophy at Marischal College, Aberdeen, and then King's College, London.

However, by 1865 he retired to the family estate in Dumfries and Galloway where he spent most of his days until his death, aged 48, in 1879.

He is buried at Parton graveyard close to his long-time home.

According to past president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Sir Michael Atiyah, his lifetime achievements deserve to be honoured with the new statue.

"It is quite remarkable that there is not more recognition of James Clerk Maxwell in either the public consciousness of great scientists or, indeed, until now in the shape of a permanent monument in his home city," he said.

One of those issues has been addressed with the unveiling of a statue produced by Paisley-born sculptor Alexander Stoddart.

Increasing public awareness of Clerk Maxwell's importance, however, may take a little longer to achieve.

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