Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Plain Michael Faraday

At Bartleby.com you can read Michael Faraday's great classic of scientific popularization, The Chemical History of a Candle. Faraday (1791-1867) is one of my favorite scientists in history. Raised working class, he became interested in science when, apprenticed to a bookbinder, he read books on science. At one point he was given tickets to a set of lectures by Humphrey Davy; he took notes and a year later presented them to Davy, asking if Davy could give him a position assisting him with scientific research. No position was available at the time, but by chance a position did open up a few months later. Davy, remembering Faraday, interviewed him again, and thus, by sheer fluke, the Great Experimentalist entered his scientific career as a Chemical Assistant at the Royal Institute. In 1821 he discovered electromagnetic rotation; in 1823 he liquefied chlorine; in 1825 he discovered benzene. In 1826 he began a long and eminently successful career in lecturing to the public on scientific issues. In 1831 he discovered electromagnatic induction. And so it went.

One of Faraday's continual problems working in Victorian England was his relatively limited education -- while certainly not stupid or ignorant in any sense of the term, he lacked a classical background and had only a very limited mathematical education, both of which made it difficult for him to convey his theoretical ideas to his peers; which is perhaps one reason why, despite his theoretical brilliance, he had a much greater reputation for experiment than theory. However, he was able to compensate somewhat for his lack of a classical background by his correspondence with friends, like William Whewell (who, for instance, suggested the terms 'anode' and 'cathode' rather than Faraday's original 'eastode' and 'westode), and the mathematical formulations would come later with Thomson (later called Lord Kelvin) and Maxwell.

Like many of the great Victorian scientists, he had a very high ideal of the ethical character of a good scientist; it is even said that this was a factor in his attempt to enter a career in science: scientific research was a higher ethical calling than the trades, and one that was more conducive to integrity. (He declined the presidency of the Royal Society for similar reasons: he told Tyndall, one of his friends, that he must remain "plain Michael Faraday" to the last, and did not think he could preserve his intellectual integrity in such a position.) It's hard to find any reason not to like him.

Here you can read a reprinted Everyman edition of selections from his Experimental Researches.

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