James Clerk Maxwell

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:03 pm on 28th June 2006.

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Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative 5:03 pm, 28th June 2006

The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S2M-4337, in the name of Alex Fergusson, on the anniversary of the birth of James Clerk Maxwell. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament acknowledges the 175th anniversary of the birth of James Clerk Maxwell on 13 June 2006; recognises his great achievement in discovering the nature of electromagnetic waves which opened the way to the invention of television, radio, radar and the mobile phone; applauds his work on colour perception which enabled the successful development of colour television and colour photography, and believes that he is worthy of greater recognition throughout Scotland, given the acknowledgement of Albert Einstein, who said that "the special theory of relativity owes its origins to Maxwell's equations of the electromagnetic field", and of Ivan Tolstoy, who wrote "Maxwell's importance in the history of scientific thought is comparable to Einstein's (whom he inspired) and to Newton's (whose influence he curtailed)".

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative 5:11 pm, 28th June 2006

To get this subject into the short time available is a task that would probably be beyond James Clerk Maxwell himself, but I am honoured to have the opportunity to try to do so.

Some 8 miles south of my home in the stewartry of Kirkcudbrightshire lies the small, but very beautiful village of Parton, which is well-known to many of us locally as the site of the most unlikely 30mph restriction in Scotland. Some years ago, in an effort to slow down in recognition of that speed restriction, I first noticed the tourist board sign at the edge of the village that marks it as the burial place of James Clerk Maxwell. I suspect that my initial reaction would be mirrored by most Scots if they were asked what they knew of James Clerk Maxwell—"James Clerk who?" There is no real shame in that because even in the world of physics and engineering, there is a glaring and widespread ignorance of anything other than his name among those who could speak at length on the life, works and theories of Newton, Einstein and Faraday. Clerk Maxwell's most recent biographer, Basil Mahon, described how, as an engineering student, he found that James was often introduced during lectures as "the great James Clerk Maxwell". Through those lectures, it gradually became apparent that his influence on the physical sciences was all-pervasive, but he was scarcely known in the wider world, even to Basil Mahon's friends and colleagues who knew all about Einstein, Newton and Faraday.

So who is this great James Clerk Maxwell and why is he the subject of the motion before us this evening that calls for greater recognition of him throughout Scotland? He was born at 14 India Street, Edinburgh, 175 years ago, on 13 June 1831. Although the family moved very shortly afterwards to their home and small estate at Glenlair near Corsock in Galloway, James returned to Edinburgh at the age of 10 to attend Edinburgh academy, just two years after the death of his mother.

There, while staying with two different aunts, he became a gifted scholar, showing a particular aptitude for science, especially physics and mathematics. At the tender age of 14, he wrote a paper on oval curves that was read to the Royal Society of Edinburgh by no less a figure than James Forbes, the professor of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, at which James enrolled in due course, studying courses in philosophy, physics and mathematics. In that, he was hugely encouraged by Professor Forbes, who seems to have spent a great deal of his own time reading Clerk Maxwell's papers to the Royal Society when the author was too young to do so himself.

In 1850, when he was still only 19, James went up to Cambridge where he was reunited with his old friend, P G Tait. He carried on where he had left off in Edinburgh and continued his studies of light and colour, which culminated in him reading at last his own paper to the Royal Society, on the detection and combination of colour. It was during that time that his interest in electromagnetism developed and, in 1855, he produced a paper that mathematically described Michael Faraday's observations on electric and magnetic fields. In so doing, James Clerk Maxwell showed how electricity, magnetism and light could be unified into a single theory of electromagnetism. The fact that it was not until eight years after his death in 1879 that the theory was emphatically verified by Heinrich Hertz proves just how far ahead of his time Clerk Maxwell was.

I do not have enough time to catalogue the incredible achievements of the man, so suffice it to point out that in 1856 he was appointed professor of natural philosophy at Marischal college in Aberdeen, where he both won the Adams prize for his work on Saturn's rings and married the principal's daughter. That was a good move, one might well think, but it did not save him when the amalgamation of Marischal college and King's college meant that only one professor of natural philosophy was required. It was not to be James Clerk Maxwell. He applied for a similar position in Edinburgh but was pipped at that post by his old friend, James Tait. However, fate must surely have intervened when, in 1860, he succeeded his former mentor, James Forbes, and was appointed professor of natural philosophy at King's college, London. For the next five years there, his interest and work expanded beyond electromagnetism to take in, amongst others, kinetic theory, thermodynamics and the elastic properties of solids. Remarkably, in 1861, he demonstrated the first projected colour image—a colour photograph, as it were—at the Royal Institution. Although I understand that an element of luck was associated with that piece of work, several decades passed before colour photography was any more fully understood.

In 1865, he retired to his beloved Glenlair in Galloway, where he wrote extensively and continued his research before being tempted back to the world of academia. He returned to Cambridge as professor of physics and, importantly, as the first director of the Cavendish laboratory, which he both designed and supervised. It was entirely his doing that the Cavendish rapidly rose to the position of pre-eminence that it still enjoys today. During those years, he spent as much time as he could at Glenlair before he contracted the same form of cancer as his mother. He died after quite a swift illness in 1879, at the age of 48. The 125th anniversary of his death was noted in a parliamentary motion by our colleague Dr Elaine Murray.

That brief sketch of James Clerk Maxwell's life might suggest that he was the archetypal nutty professor, hiding himself away in a world of papers, theories and experiments. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was a witty, loving and outgoing individual who always ensured that his family enjoyed the warm, close relationships that had characterised his own childhood. He also took his duties as laird of Glenlair very seriously. He introduced policies of best practice to the farm and he did his utmost to improve the estate wherever possible. He designed and supervised the alterations to the house before his family moved into it. Even as he was dying, he campaigned against the closure of the local school—some things do not change in Dumfries and Galloway—and he offered at no charge some of his own land on which to build a new one. However, he died before that came to fruition.

His humour always shone through. Among other talents, he had a great bent towards poetry. At the age of 26, he wrote a ditty that he sent to his friend William Thomson, who was a consultant with the Atlantic Telegraph Company, which had run into difficulties with an undersea cable-laying operation. Maxwell Clerk wrote:

Under the sea, under the sea,

No little signals are coming to me.

Under the sea, under the sea,

Something has surely gone wrong,

And it's broke, broke, broke;

What is the cause of it does not transpire

But something has broken the telegraph wire

With a stroke, stroke, stroke,

Or else they've been pulling too strong.

That shows his nice, gentle sense of humour.

James Clerk Maxwell was quite a remarkable man in many respects. He is the father of—to name but four—radar, colour television, computers and the mobile phone. He was years ahead of his time and he died when he was just getting going. Perhaps that is why he is almost forgotten. He did not live long enough to witness his theories being proved and verified by others.

I must pay tribute to some who have absolutely refused to let him be forgotten and who have done so much to raise his profile, especially over the past few years. In particular, I mention Basil Mahon, who has recently published a wonderful biography—called "The Man who Changed Everything"—and who has given a series of lectures this year, one of which I was lucky enough to attend, in Rockcliffe in my constituency, on the date of James Clerk Maxwell's birthday.

I should also mention the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation, which acquired his birthplace in India Street in 1993. The house, which now has an increasing amount of material on display, is dedicated both to raising public awareness and to encouraging Scottish students to study the sciences. That is surely an incredibly worthwhile effort, given today's announcement that the numbers of such students are falling dramatically. In addition, the Royal Society of Edinburgh is working with a number of organisations to celebrate the anniversary. I should also mention Captain Duncan Ferguson, who is the current owner of Glenlair, who formed the Maxwell at Glenlair Trust to preserve the Glenlair house, which was ravaged by fire in 1929.

Last, but by no means least, I cannot talk about James Clerk Maxwell without mentioning the remarkable Sam Callendar of Parton village. He has become a walking encyclopaedia on James Clerk Maxwell and provides a wealth of knowledge to visitors who come to see the man's grave. He is a true and utterly devoted individual, and I am delighted that he has been able to join us this evening, along with representatives of the charities that I have mentioned.

We cannot continue to ignore this incredible son of Scotland. We must ensure that his work and its impact is taught in our schools, so that today's pupils do not grow up in the ignorance that has led to the requirement for tonight's debate. Einstein said:

"One scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell".

I hope that we can say that an era of ignorance has ended tonight and that a new dawn of recognition begins tomorrow.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 5:20 pm, 28th June 2006

I congratulate Alex Fergusson on securing tonight's debate. As he said, James Clerk Maxwell was and is a huge figure, especially in the field of electromagnetism and thermodynamics. In the 19 th century, there were many such figures, even in Scotland, including Lord Kelvin.

The recognition of his importance is encapsulated in two of the quotes in Alex Fergusson's motion. I will add another two to those. Max Planck, the father of quantum physics, said that Clerk Maxwell "achieved greatness unequalled". Richard Feynman, who won the Nobel prize for physics in 1965, said:

"the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell's discovery of the laws of electrodynamics."

As the motion says, Clerk Maxwell needs more honour in the country of his birth.

Although I studied natural philosophy—which has now transformed itself into physics, perhaps in an attempt to make it more attractive—at Glasgow University, I was not really aware of Clerk Maxwell. Perhaps Glasgow was prouder of Lord Kelvin, its own son. However, I heard that the unit of magnetic inductance was named after Maxwell. Even that has been dropped with the move to SI units and has become the henry—whoever Henry was. Gradually, I became more aware of Clerk Maxwell. When I first moved to Aberdeen, I lived on a street called Boyd Orr Avenue, which was named after the famous physiologist and nutritionist from Aberdeen University. However, the next street was Clerk Maxwell Crescent, because, as Alex Fergusson said, Clerk Maxwell was professor of natural philosophy at Marischal college. Subsequently I holidayed just outside Parton and was aware of the granite stone in the churchyard commemorating Clerk Maxwell.

As Alex Fergusson said, Maxwell was clearly a bit of a wit. On moving to Cambridge University and being told that there would be a compulsory 6 am church service, he apparently said:

"Aye, I suppose I could stay up that late."

Alex Fergusson quoted one example of his verse, which he was in the habit of accompanying with his own guitar playing. He based one of his poems on "Comin thro' the rye". It starts:

"Gin a body meet a body

Flyin' thro the air,

Gin a body hit a body,

Will it fly? And where?"

As the motion suggests, we need to do more to recognise him, as we need to do more to recognise all our famous Scots. Clerk Maxwell Crescent is the only street in Scotland—there is only one other in the United Kingdom—that is named after him. I know that that is not the minister's responsibility, but perhaps local councils could be a bit more imaginative in their street naming and name streets after some of our famous Scots, rather than naming them after trees that have never grown in Scotland, or whatever else takes their fancy.

I hope that the efforts of the consortium that is running Maxwell year 2006 are successful. Alex Fergusson alluded to the drop in the figures for people who are taking science subjects at university, about which we heard yesterday. That trend has existed for some time. It is important for the future of us all that we reverse it. One way in which we could contribute to that would be to talk about the achievements of scientific pioneers such as Maxwell, to convey the sense of excitement that was around in science in those days, when people were making groundbreaking discoveries.

I conclude with a quote from Max Planck. He said:

"If anybody says he can think about quantum problems without getting giddy, that only shows he has not understood the first thing about them."

Of Clerk Maxwell, he said:

"His name stands magnificently over the portal of classical physics, and we can say this of him; by his birth, James Clerk Maxwell belongs to Edinburgh, by his personality he belongs to Cambridge, by his work he belongs to the whole world."

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour 5:25 pm, 28th June 2006

I congratulate Alex Fergusson on being the first person to lodge a motion on this subject when a number of people thought that it would be useful to commemorate the anniversary of James Clerk Maxwell.

One of the websites at which I looked described Maxwell as being one of the three most influential physicists, the other two being Newton and Einstein. It said that, unlike the other two, James Clerk Maxwell was well known only among physicists. Alex Fergusson said that he was not even well known among physicists, although I have come across lots of Maxwell laboratory buildings and at least three of the labs in which I have worked have been attached to Maxwell buildings—one of them was irreverently or affectionately known as Maxwell house.

The fact that James Clerk Maxwell is Scottish is not the reason why he is not so well known; it is possibly because no soundbites are associated with his work. Everybody recognises the Newtonian concept that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction and people know Einstein's equation, E=mc2. Even if people do not understand the physics, they know the soundbites. James Clerk Maxwell's work, however, is less easily encapsulated in the public imagination.

I will briefly describe what James Clerk Maxwell did to develop understanding of the nature of electromagnetic radiation, or light, as it is more commonly known. His work is an illustration of how science progresses and the way in which the contribution of great scientists such as Maxwell or Einstein is not in inventing something new but in taking the results and theories that are under debate in the scientific community and interpreting them in a novel way that radically improves our understanding of the world about us.

Newtonian physics was modelled on particles and the way in which they behaved when subjected to external factors. Newton believed that light was made up of particles, which was why shadows were sharp replicas of the object that caused them.

In the early 19th century, a physicist called Thomas Young noticed that if one shone a beam of light through a very narrow slit, the shadow produced looked like the waves on the surface of a pond, suggesting that light travelled like a wave and not a particle.

Maxwell transformed the way in which the nature of light was understood. He took four observations: when electric charges move, they produce an electric force; magnetic monopoles do not exist, or there is no north pole without a south pole, because they exist in pairs; changing electric forces produces a change in magnetic forces; and changing magnetic forces produces changes in electric fields. That last is the principle of the dynamo—when one cycles along with moving magnets, one is able to produce an electric current that puts the light on.

Maxwell put together all those equations that describe such phenomena and showed mathematically that waves consisting of oscillating magnetic and electric fields could travel through empty space at the speed of light—just over 300,000km per second. That model of electromagnetic radiation, to which Alasdair Morgan referred, was suggested by Michael Faraday about 20 years earlier, but it was James Clerk Maxwell who had the mathematical ability to "prove"—a word that scientists always put in inverted commas—that it was a substantial hypothesis.

Einstein went on to bring together the work of Newton and Maxwell. Another physicist, Max Planck, to whom Alasdair Morgan referred, suggested prior to Einstein that light could behave like a moving particle—so Newton was not altogether wrong—and that the energy of those particles was related to the frequency of the light, or the rate at which those oscillating electromagnetic fields that Maxwell spoke about related to the energy of those light particles.

Einstein went on to develop that work to show that light could be considered to have mass, which was related to its energy, and that because it has mass, it could be affected by electromagnetic fields, which he famously proved during an eclipse of the sun.

James Clerk Maxwell's theories therefore influenced future developments in understanding physics as well as chemistry, affecting our understanding of the atom and the way in which atoms interact with light and with each other. His work influenced many scientists and enabled the development of many instruments and gadgets that we now take for granted.

Isaac Newton said:

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants".

It is clear that James Clerk Maxwell was one of the giants on whose shoulders others, including Albert Einstein, stood. It is therefore fitting that we in the Scottish Parliament record the contribution that this Scottish physicist made to international science.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party 5:30 pm, 28th June 2006

I congratulate Alex Fergusson on bringing this topic for debate, but I must correct his initial statement that it would be impossible to put all the material into the time available. The point is that Clerk Maxwell laid the basis for Einstein's later work, which of course showed that to get the material into the time available one only needs to move close to the speed of light. Therefore, Alex Fergusson was entirely wrong, thanks to Clerk Maxwell.

There are many interesting aspects to the subjects of natural philosophy and mathematics. I remember the excitement and enjoyment I felt, as a spotty-faced young lad at secondary school, on being charged up by the Van der Graaf generator and going along the corridor and shaking hands with the first victim I found. That was the sort of primitive piece of science that engages the mind and starts to make young people think about the world around them.

Clerk Maxwell's contribution to the world was to explain some of the phenomena that we can see and experience. He attended Marischal college in the University of Aberdeen, where I went as a student. I was an extremely indifferent student, so when I finally graduated my mother gave my girlfriend a present because she knew that the fact that I had finally graduated was nothing to do with me. When I was at the university, the professor of natural philosophy was R V Jones, who said that Clerk Maxwell made

"one of the greatest leaps ever achieved in human thought."

R V Jones was, of course, famed for his work on radar during the second world war, which depended utterly on Clerk Maxwell's earlier thinking.

Natural philosophy it was when I was at Aberdeen. My studies were in the arts faculty rather than the science faculty because it is about thinking and a philosophy with which to see the world. I think that that is important.

It has also been said that Clerk Maxwell's contribution was that he curbed Newton's influence. He certainly avoided descending into the sequence that Newton did at the end of his life, when he spent some 10 years pursuing the chimera of alchemy and thus in many ways devalued his contribution to world thinking.

The reality is that we now understand that what we can see and touch is perhaps only 4 per cent of the universe; another 24 per cent is said to be dark matter; and the rest is energy, which is far and away the biggest part of the universe. We have today, through the work of Clerk Maxwell, an explanation that covers much of the universe that we are unable to see.

The Scottish Parliament is perhaps particularly fortunate in that all the major parties, with the exception of the Liberals, have mathematicians represented here—even the First Minister is one. We now have five mathematicians in the Parliament. Therefore, I hope that the Parliament is a great place in which we can do thinking well. Clerk Maxwell changed the world by pure thought, which was an important contribution to the modern world.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour 5:34 pm, 28th June 2006

I congratulate Alex Fergusson not just on bringing the debate to the chamber but on making a speech that justified the purpose of members' business debates, which is to enable us to raise issues such as the current one. I thought that the level of Alex Fergusson's speech set a high standard for the debate. Indeed, I almost decided to cancel the flashing light on my console as I sat and listened to colleagues explain the significance of James Clerk Maxwell. I thought that Elaine Murray's speech was particularly effective in that regard.

I am not one of the five mathematicians in the Parliament. I am somebody whom science passed by at school, although I did biology, which I always think of as a science. However, from speaking to scientists, I know that not all of them agree that it is—I am not going there.

It is entirely appropriate that we now celebrate the birth of James Clerk Maxwell 175 years ago. It is also appropriate that work has been done to ensure that his house at 14 India Street is accessible. I would encourage people to visit it. The house should be added to our tourism literature, because Edinburgh should be proud of it. Maxwell should be part of the story of Edinburgh. Many scientists made their name in Edinburgh—Charles Darwin for example—and it is hugely appropriate that such people should feature in our adverts for the city and in our education about the city.

I want to congratulate the steering group that was set up to celebrate the anniversary of James Clerk Maxwell this year. I have met its members and attended one of its meetings; it is a very distinguished group. Its work covers wider issues than just this evening's debate; a whole series of events, lectures and discussions will take place this year in Edinburgh and throughout the rest of Scotland.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative

Sarah Boyack represents a part of Edinburgh and I wonder whether she supports, as I do, the efforts of the president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in championing the erection of a statue to James Clerk Maxwell in the city.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

I was going to come on to that. Alasdair Morgan pointed out how few streets in Scotland are named after James Clerk Maxwell. We in the chamber could collectively address that issue. It would be highly appropriate if one or two squares in Edinburgh were named after James Clerk Maxwell, and possibly some streets. A statue would give a physical entity to the man who was James Clerk Maxwell—as long as it had a little plaque beside it, as long as it became part of a tourist trial, and as long as it became part of the formal recognition of the contribution of James Clerk Maxwell. We could do a whole number of things.

I ask the minister to consider the tourism implications and the worthwhile suggestions relating to schools that a couple of colleagues have raised. We are all trying to build a smart, successful Scotland, but we have not sufficiently emphasised the importance of James Clerk Maxwell. This debate could raise awareness and add weight to the ideas of the steering group.

Much could come out of today's debate and it is important that we mark the anniversary in Parliament. From an e-mail that I received earlier this week, I note that 100 MPs in the House of Commons have signed a similar motion in the name of my colleague Mark Lazarowicz, whose constituency contains India Street.

Let us think about how we can take today's debate forward. It will be an important footnote in the history of this Parliament and will help us to focus on where we might go from here. I look to the minister for some ideas.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party 5:38 pm, 28th June 2006

I would like to develop some of Sarah Boyack's ideas, especially those on tourism and art in the Parliament. Like Alasdair Morgan and Stewart Stevenson, I should declare my interest, although I do not want anybody to think that my character was formed by an electric shock from a Van de Graaf generator, as Mr Stevenson's clearly was. However, my first encounter with James Clerk Maxwell was probably the same as Stewart Stevenson's. His might have taken place in his natural philosophy lectures; mine took place while sitting as a student in the Mitchell hall in Marischal college at the University of Aberdeen, where a wonderful plaque on the wall tells people about James Clerk Maxwell.

I agree that a statue is a good idea, but I suggest—perhaps more to the Presiding Officer than to the minister—having a plaque in the Parliament. Parliament should take a lead in such matters. We have an active policy on art, but much of it is contemporary. We could address that by celebrating our distinguished scientists—for example, by having appropriate plaques on the walls within the Parliament. The Parliament building is heavily visited—in fact, it is one of the most heavily visited buildings anywhere in Scotland. If we had plaques like the one to James Clerk Maxwell that is on the wall of the Mitchell hall, it would help to spread the message about our scientists.

Scotland has been extremely fortunate to have had a number of distinguished physicists. My colleague Mr Stevenson referred to R V Jones, who served at the University of Aberdeen relatively recently. We have also had physicists who have done well by building on the kind of work that James Clerk Maxwell did some time ago. The magnetic resonance imaging scanner was invented by John Mallard, who was a professor of medical physics at the University of Aberdeen. I have sought to get appropriate recognition for some of our near-contemporary scientists by making the same suggestion that I have just made in connection with James Clerk Maxwell.

We have much to celebrate in the field of science, and if we are to encourage Scots and visitors to know that, we must demonstrate that it is the case. The best way to do that is to mark the achievements of Scottish scientists in the places that people visit. I commend to members who are involved with the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body the suggestion that we should do that in the Parliament.

The inventor of ultrasound was associated with the University of Glasgow. We can be proud of the significant contribution that scientists who have worked in Scotland have made to much of medical physics.

For tourism purposes, we must have the plaques, the street names, the squares, the statues and the art objects, but why are we not encouraging our scientific community to organise conferences on the history of science? Mr Stevenson and I were contemporaries at university and we just avoided the compulsory history of science course. Perhaps that explains why we are not as proud of the history of our science as we ought to be.

It is up to scientists in Scotland to encourage conferences to take place here that celebrate the history of science as it relates to this country; the conferences that are held should not just be about progressing current science. Tourists come to conferences. Given that we already host a significant number of conferences, why are no efforts being made to organise conferences on James Clerk Maxwell, which would play a positive role in acknowledging and developing awareness of his achievements? By linking knowledge of the achievements of the past to awareness of contemporary science, we would encourage young people to get involved in and be excited about science.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green 5:43 pm, 28th June 2006

I want to reflect briefly on James Clerk Maxwell's time at the University of Aberdeen. Three of the members present are graduates of that university. Like Stewart Stevenson, I have an indifferent degree. The ordinary degree is a lovely degree, as part of which both science and arts are studied. I studied philosophy and natural philosophy while R V Jones was in Aberdeen. R V Jones's teaching was heavily based on James Clerk Maxwell's approach.

When I went to the University of Aberdeen, there was a story about the east coast universities. It was said that when a lecturer addressed his class at a 9 o'clock lecture at the University of St Andrews, his "Good morning" would receive no reply because the students would all be asleep or not there. At the University of Edinburgh, the students would give a bright "Good morning" to the lecturer's greeting. When a lecturer came into the lecture theatre and said "Good morning" at the University of Aberdeen, the students would write it down. It is clear that the situation was not much different 150 years before I went to the university.

In his inaugural lecture, stating the way in which he would approach his teaching, James Clerk Maxwell said:

"My duty is to give you the requisite foundation and to allow your thoughts to arrange themselves freely. It is best that every man should be settled in his own mind, and not be led into other men's ways of thinking under the pretence of studying science. By a careful and diligent study of natural laws I trust that we shall at least escape the dangers of vague and desultory modes of thought and acquire a habit of healthy and vigorous thinking which will enable us to recognise error in all the popular forms in which it appears and to seize and hold fast truth whether it be old or new."

R V Jones certainly taught in that style. He wanted to encourage people to think; the absence of which is a feature of our education system today—much concern is expressed on the subject. If we want to pay the full tribute to James Clerk Maxwell's contribution to science and teaching, his thoughts and achievements should be recognised and kept alive in our education system, as well as be remembered by way of statues. Although the teaching of science underwent a revolution after the Newsom report, and there is good teaching and much experimental science in our schools, some schools still teach towards exams. James Clerk Maxwell was considerably worried about that 150 years ago.

James Clerk Maxwell spent a short time at the University of Aberdeen—he was there for four years. Alex Fergusson referred to his work on Saturn's rings. It is interesting to note that, by a process of mathematical and statistical modelling, he dismissed the idea that the rings were solid or fluid and concluded that they had to be dust rings. He also came up with an idea of what they would look like and set out the wave motions that would run through them. When Voyagers l and ll went past Saturn in the 1980s, more than 100 years later, they found exactly what James Clerk Maxwell described, which shows the brilliance of his mind. He made that discovery in 1856, well ahead of any other thinking. The paper that he gave on the subject was delivered in a hall that is now the University of Aberdeen music hall.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

The music hall was built for a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and is one of the university's major buildings. Would we build something like that now for a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science? Sadly, I think not.

Sadly, James Clerk Maxwell was quickly forgotten at Aberdeen. He left for Cambridge when Marischal and Kings colleges were brought together. Instead of being given the job, another professor—Crafty Thomson, as he was known, the professor of natural philosophy at Kings—got it. Happily for the University of Cambridge, James Clerk Maxwell went down there. Communications that the University of Aberdeen received in his name about the music school, to which he continued to contribute, were returned to the senders marked "unknown". James Clerk Maxwell became unknown to the university almost as soon as he left it.

We need to teach the history of science in science teaching, so that people who study science have role models to look up to. Earlier this afternoon, I was talking to a young woman who was sitting in the gallery. She told me that she knew the Archimedes principle, but had no idea who Archimedes was. Nowadays, who knows who Volta or Ampère were? How will people know those things if we do not teach them about the real people and how they experimented and came to their conclusions? We should teach thought in our schools.

Have I got a couple of seconds, Presiding Officer?

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

You have a couple of seconds, but you are two minutes over time.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

I am terribly sorry, Presiding Officer. I have kept everyone here for far too long.

My remarks are about the teaching of history as well as the teaching of science. We should incorporate the history of science and the history of thought in the teaching of history. I wish that the Minister for Education and Young People was also here for the debate. Again, I apologise for going over time, Presiding Officer.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

In the circumstances, you are forgiven.

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour 5:49 pm, 28th June 2006

It is a pleasure to be in the company of the well-read and studious colleagues who surround me. I join them in congratulating Alex Fergusson on securing the debate and in paying tribute to James Clerk Maxwell.

The debate comes a few days after the anniversary of James Clerk Maxwell's birth, but at an opportune time, given that this week his birthplace of Edinburgh is honoured to host the 10th European particle accelerator conference, which is being attended by around 1,000 physicists from all over the world.

James Clerk Maxwell was one of the world's greatest scientists and many people speak of Maxwell, Einstein and Newton in the same breath. As members have said, his work inspired many people and laid the foundations for some of the most significant scientific and technological advances of the 20th century, the consequences of which are interwoven into our daily lives. As members might expect, I will focus on the contemporary importance of Maxwell's work.

In Scotland, we have always taken particular and justified pride in our education system and our strong history of scientific discovery and innovation. Scottish science has given birth to many innovations, such as the telephone, anaesthesia, penicillin, television, tarmacadam and tyres. Without the scientific endeavours of great scientists such as Maxwell we would live in a very different world. Their legacy is great and their inspiration lives on in the groundbreaking work that goes on today in our scientific institutions.

For example, at the University of St Andrews, Professor Wilson Sibbett works on ultra-fast lasers—laser pulses so fast that as many could be squeezed into a second as there have been hours since the big bang. Such work is opening the way for exciting new applications in medical imaging and communication, which will revolutionise diagnosis and treatments. We will be able to see what is happening at the core of diseased tissue and understand the impact of a new drug without damaging surrounding tissue.

Professor Walter Kolch, at the University of Glasgow, is working on proteomics, the new science of protein function. He is undertaking world-leading research on the molecular mechanisms of cancer development, heart disease and infection and his work is expected to bring real benefits to sufferers of such conditions in the coming years. I could give many other examples.

Never before has science been so important as a key driver of not just our global economy but our quality of life.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Given that the minister has responsibility for enterprise, he will acknowledge the importance of the future development of our knowledge economy. Does he agree that a bridge to help to build the knowledge economy might be provided by a public relations exercise that makes science sexy and ensures that people know about the history of science in Scotland, including the work of James Clerk Maxwell and others?

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

Indeed. I thought that the couple of incidental references that members made to the current position of science in our institutions masked the overall position, which is rather better than is portrayed, not least in the news. The number of Scottish first-year undergraduates who chose science degrees increased by 19 per cent between 2001-02 and 2003-04, whereas there was a 1 per cent decrease in the number of non-science first-year students.

In that context, I was intrigued by Sarah Boyack's comments about what constitutes science. There has undoubtedly been a shift towards applied subjects and there have been significant increases in the proportion of students who study biological sciences and subjects allied to mathematics and medicine and a decline in the number of students of pure sciences such as physics and chemistry, although the number of such students has increased again slightly since 2001-02.

The progress is much better than it is sometimes portrayed in the media. Our science strategy for Scotland acknowledges that point. It also takes into account the excellence of our science base, which is disproportionately strong in its quality and breadth, relative to the size of the country's economy.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

The minister is talking about acquiring knowledge, which is of course essential, but knowledge becomes obsolete over time. Does the minister agree that, if the education system in its broadest sense fails to teach us to think and therefore to be able to acquire new and updated knowledge, it does not serve the whole purpose that we require of it?

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

My point was precisely that our education system is teaching contemporary students to think, hence the fact that, per capita, we rank third in the world on research publications and citations, ahead of the United States of America and Germany. We produce 1 per cent of the world's published research with only 0.1 per cent of the world's population. Therefore, if we have room for improvement, it is not necessarily in our ability to think through research, but in our ability to commercialise it and roll it out for wider social and economic benefit. I believe that more could be done on that.

More than half of Scotland's research is rated as internationally excellent. Our key strengths lie in the life sciences, medical research, biotechnology, informatics, energy, nanotechnology and environmental science. Scotland attracts 20 per cent of all United Kingdom research funding in bioscience, which is the highest percentage of any of the UK's regions or countries. That reflects our ability to put the money to good use. Scottish research is also internationally connected, not least to institutions such as Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Scottish research continues to provide a lead for the UK in several areas. The cloning work at the Roslin Institute is internationally renowned. We also have the national e-science centre at the University of Edinburgh, which is a partnership with the University of Glasgow; the Wellcome Trust biocentre at the University of Dundee; the mineral and mining engineering work at Heriot-Watt University, which is also in Edinburgh; the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research in Glasgow, which is world renowned; and the institute for gravitational research at the University of Glasgow.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative

The developments that the minister points out are all highly worthy of applause, but does he agree that the researchers and scientists of tomorrow will be more inspired if they are fully aware of the deeds of some of their predecessors? To get back to the point of the debate, does the minister agree that we are not doing that process any favours if we continue to undervalue the incredible work of James Clerk Maxwell? Does he agree that it would be hugely beneficial in the process of inspiring tomorrow's researchers if we were actively to educate them through the education system about the work of that great man?

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

Indeed, but I put it to the member that the two processes are not mutually exclusive. As well as celebrating the work of our past scientists, we should also celebrate the work of the contemporary scientists who are making such inroads and scientific advances and, in the process, inspiring new generations of students. As a science nation, we aim to promote a culture that inspires young people to get involved and to see science as a promising career option and scientists as highly respected members of society. Undoubtedly, we can do that by paying due tribute to scientists such as James Clerk Maxwell and the contribution that they have made to our contemporary society.

In that context, all of the suggestions that have been made in the debate about the various means by which we could have a more contemporary focus on his contribution—whether by naming streets or squares or by having statues or anything else—will be referred to the appropriate departments of the Scottish Executive for officials to study and respond to. I give a commitment to ensure that those responses are conveyed to Alex Fergusson and to every other member who has made a suggestion about the most appropriate way in which the contribution of James Clerk Maxwell and others who have made an internationally renowned contribution to scientific research can be more properly reflected in our contemporary society.

Meeting closed at 18:00.