Subscribe by RSS

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Maxwell's house

Forty years in the navy have given Duncan Ferguson a salty sense of humour and a bluff way with fools.

"Is it a Scots Pine?" I ask, as he leads the large party of visitors on his Glenlair estate to a towering evergreen, by the side of the track near the old stables.

"Good heavens no," he barks. "It's a Wellingtonia*. They were planted in large estates up and down the country, in memory of the Duke of Wellington."

"So that tree was alive when James was a boy then?" I say, not having the sense to shut up and fade into the background.

"What's that?" he says, the hint of a smile on his face, his left hand cupped behind his ear. "You were a boy then?"

I shake my head and struggle on. "When James Clerk Maxwell was a boy, that tree would have been growing there," I say. "He would have played around it?"

"Of course he would," he tells me, marching off towards the stables, followed by his fascinated entourage.

For Captain Ferguson is a man on a mission

The estate he grew up on, and still occupies, was once home to one of the greatest scientists who ever lived. James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) played on the same grass and paddled in the same streams as young Duncan did when he was a boy, seventy summers ago. 

It's a name known to every physicist and engineer - and almost nobody else. "The whole of modern technology is based on the discoveries of James Clerk Maxwell," the Captain had explained at the start of our tour, outside the blackened stone of the old house, gutted by fire in 1929.

"But what do you think of when you hear about Maxwell's house?"

"Coffee," says a brave soul from the crowd.

"Coffee!" agrees the Captain, with a look of disgust. "It's a disgrace. We Scots can be very ignorant." 

Not wishing to appear any more so, and having already seen the stables, I peel off and head in the opposite direction, towards the Lair burn that runs below and behind the old buildings. 

The inspiration Maxwell gainedalong this little stream, from waves on water and light on leaves has been captured lovingly by Howie Firth.

But the man himself had put pen to paper long before, and recorded a few of the feelings the stream inspired in him

"Where the mavis builds her nest,
And finds both work and rest,
In the bush she loves the best,
On our ain burnside."

As I wander the banks of the Lair, lush at this time of year, my mind drifts back to the most memorable lecture of my student days. Doc Adam, a crusty, tobacco-stained physicist, whose gruff ways concealed kindness, had been weeks carefully placing little pieces of scaffolding to help us ascend the edifice of Maxwell's equations. 

Then at two o'clock on a wet Wednesday, without any preliminaries, he walked briskly into the lecture-theatre and wrote the differential form of Maxwell's equations on the board. A few minutes of manipulation and he had derived the wave equations for the electric and magnetic fields in free space, and shown that they travelled at the speed of light.

It was a moment of breathtaking beauty, when the structure of the physical world seemed set to reveal itself to those of us who had taken the time to learn its laws and language. 

It didn't. That was the peak of clarity for me. The following term I encountered quantum mechanics and my future wife, a combination that soon dispelled any sense of certainty or reason. Insights nowadays are far outnumbered by foggy confusions. 

But as my eyes focus on unfamiliar surroundings and I discover I'm lost in the woods again, I realise something, at least, with certainty. I am still grateful to James Clerk Maxwell for the glimpse of profound understanding he gave me, so long ago.

* The giant redwood, Sequoiadendron giganteum, is the largest tree by volume in the world. It can grow to 95 metres tall and live for 3000 years. On its introduction to Britain in 1853, the species was briefly named Wellingtonia gigantea, after the recently deceased Duke of Wellington - until it was pointed out that the name was invalid. Wellingtonia had already been used for another plant. The name persists, however, particularly in England.

No comments:

Post a Comment