The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

November 5, 2016

November 5, 1879

James Clerk Maxwell (June 13, 1831 to November 5, 1879) was a Scottish scientist and though connected with Cambridge, and King's College in London, was happy and productive at his home in Glenlair. His contributions have been compared to those of Isaac Newton. One website summarizes this significance:

His paper On Faraday's lines of force was read to the Cambridge Philosophical Society in two parts, 1855 and 1856. Maxwell showed that a few relatively simple mathematical equations could express the behaviour of electric and magnetic fields and their interrelation.

And

In London,
[King's College] around 1862, Maxwell calculated that the speed of propagation of an electromagnetic field is approximately that of the speed of light. He proposed that the phenomenon of light is therefore an electromagnetic phenomenon. Maxwell wrote the truly remarkable words:

We can scarcely avoid the conclusion that light consists in the transverse undulations of the same medium which is the cause of electric and magnetic phenomena.



At Cambridge Maxwell encountered the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, Irishman George Stokes (1819 to 1903). 

Stokes had written to him on 7 November 1857:

I have just received your papers on the dynamical top, etc., and the account of experiments on the perception of colour. The latter, which I missed seeing at the time when it was published, I have just read with great interest. The results afford most remarkable and important evidence in favour of the theory of three primary colour-perceptions, a theory which you, and you alone, as far as I know, have established on an exact numerical basis.


Of course the scientific spirit is restless. The following is a quote by the son of George G. Stokes, about his father:

He was much interested, as also was Prof. Clerk Maxwell about the same time, in cat-turning, a word invented to describe the way in which a cat manages to fall upon her feet if you hold her by the four feet and drop her, back downwards, close to the floor. The cat's eyes were made use of, too, for examination by the ophthalmoscope, as well as those of my dog Pearl: but Pearl's interest never equalled that of Professor Clerk Maxwell's dog, who seemed positively to enjoy having his eyes examined by his master.


The citation for this glimpse of scientific domesticity is Volume 1 of Memoir and Scientific Correspondence of the Late Sir George Gabriel Stokes, Bart, edited by Sir Joseph Larmor, (1907).

This quote, not as precisely cited, gives a bit more detail:

While at university in Trinity College, Cambridge, James Clerk Maxwell, who would go onto become arguably the greatest theoretical physicist of the nineteenth century, was reportedly well known for the activity. In a letter to his wife reflecting on this reputation he’d earned, Maxwell wrote, “There is a tradition in Trinity that when I was here I discovered a method of throwing a cat so as not to light on its feet, and that I used to throw cats out of windows. I had to explain that the proper object of research was to find how quick the cat would turn round, and that the proper method was to let the cat drop on a table or bed from about two inches, and that even then the cat lights on her feet.” He was not the only prominent scientist to be intrigued by the question of how cats, when falling from a height, seemingly were able to defy the laws of Newtonian physics and change motion in mid air to land on their feet. At around the same time, the eminent mathematician George Stokes was also prone to a spot of “cat-turning”. As his daughter relates in a 1907 memoir: “He was much interested, as also was Prof. Clerk Maxwell about the same time, in cat-turning, a word invented to describe the way in which a cat manages to fall upon her feet if you hold her by the four feet and drop her, back downwards, close to the floor.”


Maxwell sounds a bit defensive, as if well aware of the imputation he was not kind to cats. His wife, the daughter of a Scottish academic, probably did not need reassuring on this point.

No comments: