It’s a shame…


Pictured above is the humble grave of James Clerk Maxwell.

By all accounts, he was a kind and humble man, and so in many ways it is an entirely appropriate memorial.

But simple as it is, surely we could show our respect and admiration by as simple an act as mowing the grass? It seems not.

My attention was drawn to the unkempt state of his grave by this article in the Scottish Daily Record.

In death we are all equal.

And I have no doubt that Maxwell himself would have wanted no fuss.

But some people – very few – have led such exceptional lives that it is appropriate for us to collectively mark their mortal remains in a way which shows how much we honour their achievements in life.

This is not an indicator of our belief in any kind of saintliness on their part.

It is rather a statement about us.

It is a statement about what we currently admire and treasure and celebrate.

I have been told that Ren Zhengfei, the founder and President of Huawei Technology visited the grave and was embarrassed and shocked.

To neglect the grave of such a monumental figure says something about us.

It is actually a matter of national shame. And while acknowledging that Maxwell was decidedly Scottish, I draw the boundaries of ‘nation-hood’ more widely.

So how great was James Clerk Maxwell?

Maxwell’s many contributions to our modern view of the world are difficult to summarise without being trite, and they span an enormous range. But here are two of his achievements concerning light.

The first colour photograph taken using Maxwell's prescription. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The first colour photograph taken using Maxwell’s prescription. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Having made a breakthrough understanding of the nature of human colour vision, he used that understanding to describe how to take the first colour photograph.


A picture from Wikipedia showing a young James Clerk-Maxwell at Trinity College, Cambridge. He is holding one of his colour wheels that he used to study colour vision.

Later he became the first person to appreciate that light was an electrical phenomenon.

And the equations he wrote down to describe the nature of light are still those we use today to describe just about all electrical and magnetic phenomena*.

Richard Feynman, the person who made the next step in our understanding of the light said:

“From a long view of the history of mankind — seen from, say, ten thousand years from now — there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics. The American Civil War will pale into provincial insignificance in comparison with this important scientific event of the same decade.”

And Michael de Podesta, the person writing this blog said:

“I named my son after him”

That a true hero should not be honoured in his own land, is a shame on us all.

Surely we could collectively manage to keep the grass on his grave tidy?


*Note for pedants: In fact the equations we use are a simplified form of Maxwell’s Equations devised by Oliver Heaviside after Maxwell’s tragic early death.

3 Responses to “It’s a shame…”

  1. edhui Says:

    A pedant is more likely to note that the note for pedants should end in a full stop not a comma.

    I am in two minds about this post. The state of the grass is an exemplar of the state of understanding of physics in the general population. If we all knew the importance of the man, and we understood the nature of his achievements, the grass wouldn’t be like that. To just mow the lawn would be like trying to sweep our society’s ignorance under the sward.

    Protons for Breakfast lecture attendees would both cut the grass and understand why they were cutting it.

  2. protonsforbreakfast Says:

    Thank you. The misplaced comma has now been corrected.

    Yes, It is a symptom and alleviating the symptom won’t cure the disease.

    Perhaps we could crowd-fund a mower and each visitor could symbolically tend his grave?

    • edhui Says:

      That’s an idea, but perhaps not the best use of the money and the mower would soon disappear. We should crowd fund something, that is driven by the discomfort all scientists feel at the state of the grave, but something more symbolic and visible to the public. Can you imagine- scholarship, a lecture series or a youtube video or a book for the general public, funded by world wide discomfort at the state of the grave. It would both shame the council into taking care of it, AND accomplish a public education benefit. The Maxwell Grass Fund.

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