Okay, so before I started this book I knew that Maxwell had come up with some equations and talked about light a little, and that this helped Hertz discover the photoelectric effect and....the consequences go on. But while Maxwell got ONE page in our textbook, he did SO much for physics that we didn't get told. Okay. Basic summary, Maxwell did for electromagnetism what Newton did for gravity.
Before Maxwell's equations, the only fully developed, complete and mathematical theory in physics was Newton's universal law of gravitation. So, everyone was trying to apply its basic form to electricity etc. And it worked, but they had this weird view. 'Newtonians' believed in action-at-a-distance. i.e. that the space around a magnet is empty with regard to the action of the force, which when iit acts between say a nail and magnet leaps across the space between them without affecting that space. Now, I don't quite get this, its a weird concept but, do you know why its strange? Because of Faraday and Maxwell.
So, Faraday, armed only with basic geometry, developed the idea of a magnetic feild, which Maxwell took and hammered away on to get his equations, and eventually the field idea was accepted, when proof came for Maxwell's equations i think, and now we get it, and don't get action-at-distance. In the process of developing a way to describe mathematically the relationship between electricity and magnetism and Faraday's fields, Maxwell took the recent idea of vectors and used it, thus naming many operations involving vectors, including the curl and divergence. Plus, the curl is pretty much the right hand grip rule - how you determine the direction of a magnetic/electric field. So awesome.
Maxwell was also the first to develop a completely mathematically based theory, or like one without a physical image or analogy. Whilst physicists are used to such use of maths now then they wanted more concrete images to work with. Maxwell's equations have had enormous ramifications too. They are behind many many technologies we now use, and play a vital role in quantum electrodynamics. Maxwell also came up with the basic idea for the Michaelson-Morely experiment, and his equations have been found to be applicable at relativistic speeds and on the quantum level.
I hope you followed all that. You really have to read the book to really get how significant this guy was, I think. Not that I really understand half of what I just talked about (quantum electrodynamics, for instance), but I have a new appreciation for this guy who appears to be on the same level as Newton and Einstein. Also, the book is like a biography as well, so you get a glimpse of what the guy was like which is also cool. One of the funniest things I found was his group of friends' nicknames for each other. So, Maxwell's nickname was dp/dt because dp/dt=JCM, JCM being his initials - as the author says a 'mathematical allusion or in-joke" which simply humorously understates the wonderful geekiness of it (for want of a much better word.)
And that is what I've learnt. I don't think I really communicated much of what I wanted to, spent more time on Newtonians etc, but whatever. My blog needed a post and I needed an outlet other than my family, wouldn't care, so you are stuck with this mess of facts instead. Sorry they're terribly organised, they just spilled onto the page, so to speak.
I'll try and be more relatable next time.