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4.3 James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk Maxwell produced a unified theory of the electromagnetic field and used it to show that light is a type of electromagnetic wave. This prediction dates from the early 1860s when Maxwell was at King's College, London. Shortly afterwards Maxwell decided to retire to his family estate in Galloway in order to concentrate on research, unhindered by other duties.

This course presents Maxwell's greatest triumph – the prediction that electromagnetic waves can propagate vast distances through empty space and the realisation that light is itself an electromagnetic wave. Visible light has a very narrow range of wavelengths, but this tells us more about the sensitivity of our eyes than about the nature of electromagnetic radiation. A few years after Maxwell's death, other types of electromagnetic radiation, including radio waves, X-rays and gamma rays, were discovered.

To access this material click on the course link below. It leads to a separate OpenLearn course and will open in a new window.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this free course you should be able to:

  • explain the meaning of the newly defined terms and symbols, and use them appropriately;

  • state the equation of continuity and use it in simple problems;

  • state and name the differential versions of Maxwell's four laws of electromagnetism.

You can also visit a website for further details about James Clerk Maxwell.



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