There's a very nice article in the new Physics World in praise of James Clerk Maxwell of "Maxwell's Equations." Incredibly, Maxwell is probably somewhat underappreciated, what with wrapping up all of classical electromagnetism in one neat and Lorentz-invariant package, making pioneering contributions to thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, and taking the first color photograph, using basically the same process NASA uses for all those specatcular Hubble images. Sharp guy, that Maxwell.
He also gets credit for one of the best off-hand announcements of a titanic physics discovery I've ever heard:
On 5 January 1865, while at King's, Maxwell ended a letter to his cousin Charles Cay about his latest scientific work with the casual remark, "I have also a paper afloat containing an electromagnetic theory of light, which, till I am convinced to the contrary, I hold to be great guns."
I'd love to hear someone at a conference say "Until I am convinced to the contrary, I hold this theory to be great guns."
Yeah, It always seemed to me that Maxwell's EM theory was one of the real beginnings of "modern physics" in some sense. Special Relativity was kind of created by figuring out the consequences of this theory, not from some new experimental evidence, so it was kind of a start.
"P.S. It is also the bee's knees."
That's a great line, indeed.
But I prefer William Flower's line, at a Richard Owen lecture: "I happen to have a monkey's brain in my pocket."
You're right - if you go and ask people to name great physicists, I'd be surprised if his name came up at greater than 1% of the lay vote. But Maxwell was the real deal, as other Real Deals (Einstein, Feynman, Dirac) have appreciated in turn.
I still remember when I learned his EM equations as an undergraduate, watching huge bolts of unruly cloth being gathered up into a knot that you could hold in your hand. It was like seeing a particularly good sleight-of-hand trick being done - but of course, this one was real.