Re: The Electric Life of Michael Faraday

I knew about Michael Faraday from his work showing the connection between electricity and magnetism. I even have a 20 pound note stashed away, showing him giving a public lecture. Reading The Electric Life of Michael Faraday, by Alan Hirshfield only deepens my admiration. Though he is still regarded as one of the great experimental physicists, throughout his career he felt crippled by his lack of math. What he had instead was a powerful visual imagination.

The book begins with a vivid evocation of the bookbindery where Faraday was initially apprenticed. He found the work tedious, but read a lot of interesting books. The one with the most impact was Improvement of the Mind, by Isaac Watts. In a volume first published in 1741, Watts advises you to attend lectures, seek the meaning behind terms, observe nature directly, and speak precisely.

Faraday began attending Humphrey Davy’s lectures on science at the Royal Institution. He brought his knowledge up to date, and grew more desperate to gain a position in science at the end of his apprenticeship approached. After numerous humiliating setbacks, he finally obtained a position as “chief bottle washer”, only to be pressed into service as valet to Davy’s family on a trip through Europe.

Back home, Davy put Faraday to work in his laboratory. In time, Faraday took over Davy’s lectures at the Royal Institutions,  on such topics as “The Chemical History of the Candle”  and “Lectures on the Various Forces of Matter“. He developed the first electric motor, capacitor, and, of course, the Faraday cage.  He coined many of the terms of electrochemistry, such as electrode, anode, cathode, ion, electrolyte, electrolysis, etc. Joining  a long line of philosophers and scientists seeking to connect all natural forces as manifestations of a single fundamental force, he even tried to convert gravity into electricity. But I never heard of some of his most interesting ideas.

In “A speculation touching Electric Conduction and the Nature of Matter, he questioned the view that the atom is a material object of a certain volume separated from other atoms by space.

The atomic doctrine … is not so carefully distinguished from the facts…though it is at best an assumption.

After discussing various contradictions regarding the properties of matter this view leads to, he refers to the ideas of Boscovich, in which atoms are centers of force with powers arrayed around them. He argued that all we perceive are forces and proceeds to a suggestion in which

each atom extends…throughout the whole of the solar system, yet each retaining its own centre of force.

Toward the end of this Speculation (and a similar letter ), he backed away from the idea, as if it sounded too strange once it was written down. But this imagery of lines of force were the forerunner of field theory.

Late in life, he became more active in wider society, for example warning about the rising pollution in the Thames.  With the rise of  spiritualism and other pseudoscience, he was beset with inquiries hoping he would prove things. He concluded the education system was at fault for producing such gullible people. Some things never change.


Comments are closed.