Maxwell on Saturn's Rings

By James Clerk Maxwell

Edited by Stephen G. Brush, C. W. F. Everitt and Elizabeth Garber





From the first time they were dimly sighted through Galileo's telescope to the recent spectacular pictures beamed back by Voyager, Saturn's rings have fascinated generations of observers. The scientific problems associated with them have also attracted the attention of successive generations of theoreticians. James Clerk Maxwell's 1856 Adams Prize Essay, "On the Stability of the Motion of Saturn's Rings," forms the central body of this book and is the work that first established his reputation as one of the greatest mathematical physicists of any generation. It is surrounded by previously unpublished materials written both before and after the essay was completed. The former group consists of sixteen letters - to William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin), George Gabriel Stokes, Peter Guthrie Tait, and other friends and colleagues - written while Maxwell was working out the problems and preparing the essay for publication, and they reveal both the sureness of his approach and false starts and errors. The post-essay documents include a review of the work by George Biddell Airy, the Astronomer Royal, and correspondence with the Harvard astronomer George Bond in 1863. Here Maxwell attempts to extend his analysis to include the effects of collisions among the particles of the ring, employing his own newly developed kinetic theory of gases. The editors' introduction provides a historical context for Maxwell's contribution.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262131902 213 pp. | 6.25 in x 9.25 in


Stephen G. Brush

Stephen G. Brush is a historian of science affiliated with the University of Maryland.

C. W. F. Everitt

C. W. F. Everitt is a physicist and historian of science associated with Stanford University.

Elizabeth Garber

Elizabeth Garber is a historian of science affiliated with the State University of New York at Stony Brook.


  • A superb piece of work. It is done with Brush's usual toroughness and sensitivity to issues raised that go beyond the narrow particulars of Maxwell's immediate interest... It is the best account of Maxwell's work on kinetic theory, gases, and molecular physics that exists.

    Patricia Tyler

    Publicity Assistant

  • This book has all the hallmarks for becoming a classic. Maxwell's brilliant Adams Prize Essay On Saturn's Rings is placed in context in a lucid, informative and penetrating introduction by the editors, to which is appended a rich harvest of materials—most of which were hitherto unpublished—relating to the writing of the Essay and its reception.

    Sylvan S. Schweber

    Depts. of Physics & History of Western Thought, Brandeis University