I’ve been planning another post on the scientific discoveries of Michael Faraday, but in the process of researching his work on so-called Faraday rotation, I came across a wonderful story which is too charming not to share!
By 1844, Faraday was at the height of his popularity, and reports of his discoveries would apparently be devoured by scientists and non-scientists alike. One would hesitate to compare his popularity to a modern rock star’s, but then there’s this charming anecdote from The Life and Letters of Faraday, vol 2 (1870).
Faraday received a letter from a lady ‘of the highest talent’ who proposed ‘to become his disciple and go through with him all his own experiments.’ The lady’s name is not mentioned by Dr. Bence Jones, who compiled the letters; it was likely still considered rather improper in that era for a lady to boldly apply for a research assistantship from one of the most prominent scientists of the day. Faraday, however, gave a charming and very cordial response (Oct 24, 1844):
Dear Lady ___, __ Your letter ought to have been answered before, but there are two circumstances which have caused delay — its high character and my want of health; for since I returned from a very forced journey to Durham, I have been under the doctor’s hand. I am quickly recovering, and now have the difficult pleasure of writing to you. I need not say how much I value your letter — you can feel that; and even if it were possible that you did not, no words of mine would convey the consciousness to you: the thanks which I owe you can only properly be acknowledged by an open and sincere reply, and the absence of all conventional phrase. I wonder that, with your high object, and with views, determinations, and hopes consistent with it — all of which are justified by the mind and powers which you possess, which latter are not known to yourself only, but, as I say in perfect simplicity, are now made fully manifest to others. I wonder that you should think as I believe you do of me. But whilst I wonder, and at the same time feel fully conscious of my true position amongst those that think and know how unworthy I am of such estimation, I still receive it with gratitude from you, as much for the deep kindness as for that proportion of the praise which I may perhaps think myself entitled to, and which is the more valuable because of the worthiness of the giver.
That with your deep devotion to your object you will attain it, I do not doubt. Not that I think your aspirations will not grow with your increasing state of knowledge, and even faster than it; but you must be continually passing from the known to the unknown, and the brightness of that which will become known, as compared to the dulness, or rather obscurity, which now surrounds it, will be, and is worthy to be, your expected reward. And, though I may not live to see you attain even what your mind now desires, yet it will be a continually recurring thought in my imaginings, that if you have life given you you will do so.
That I should rejoice to aid you in your purpose you cannot doubt, but nature is against you. You have all the confidence of unbaulked health and youth both in body and mind; I am a labourer of many years’ standing, made daily to feel my wearing out. You, with increasing acquisition of knowledge, enlarge your views and intentions; I, though I may gain from day to day some little maturity of thought, feel the decay of powers, and am constrained to a continual process of lessening my intentions and contracting my pursuits. Many a fair discovery stands before me in thought which I once intended, and even now desire, to work out; but I lose all hope respecting them when I turn my thoughts to that one which is in hand, and see how slowly, for want of time and physical power, it advances, and how likely it is to be not only a barrier between me and the many beyond in intellectual view, but even the last upon the list of those practically wrought out. Understand me in this: I am not saying that my mind is wearing out, but those physico-mental faculties by which the mind and body are kept in conjunction and work together, and especially the memory, fail me, and hence a limitation of all that I was once able to perform into a much smaller extent than heretofore. It is this which has had a great effect in moulding portions of my later life; has tended to withdraw me from the communion and pursuits of men of science, my contemporaries; has lessened the number of points of investigation (that might at some time have become discoveries) which I now pursue, and which, in conjunction with its effects, makes me say, most unwillingly, that I dare not undertake what you propose — to go with you through even my own experiments. You do not know, and should not now but that I have no concealment on this point from you, how often I have to go to my medical friend to speak of giddiness and aching of the head, &c., and how often he has to bid me cease from restless thoughts and mental occupation and retire to the sea-side to inaction.
If I were with you, I could talk for hours of your letter and its contents, though it would do my head no good, for it is a most fertile source of thoughts to my mind; and whether we might differ upon this or that point or not, I am sure we should not disagree. I should be glad to think that high mental powers insured something like a high moral sense, but have often been grieved to see the contrary, as also, on the other hand, my spirit has been cheered by observing in some lowly and uninstructed creature such a healthful and honourable and dignified mind as made one in love with human nature. When that which is good mentally and morally meet in one being, that that being is more fitted to work out and manifest the glory of God in the creation, I fully admit.
You speak of religion, and here you will be sadly disappointed in me. You will perhaps remember that I guess, and not very far aside, your tendency in this respect. Your confidence in me claims in return mine to you, which indeed I have no hesitation to give on fitting occasions, but these I think are very few, for in my mind religious conversation is generally in vain. There is no philosophy in my religion. I am of a very small and despised sect of Christians, known, if known at all, as Sandemanians, and our hope is founded on the faith that is in Christ. But though the natural works of God can never by any possibility come in contradiction with the higher things that belong to our future existence, and must with everything concerning Him ever glorify Him, still I do not think it at all necessary to tie the study of the natural sciences and religion together, and, in my intercourse with my fellow creatures, that which is religious and that which is philosophical have ever been two distinct things.
And now, my dear Lady, I must conclude until I see you in town; being indeed your true and faithful servant,
Faraday’s response to his would-be scientific disciple shows a touching amount of graciousness and a wonderfully philosophical approach to both science and life. I really like his statement that “I do not think it at all necessary to tie the study of the natural sciences and religion together,” which is a very wise approach to take. There’s some very interesting history in the Sandemanian sect Faraday belonged to, which we may return to in another post.
I really wonder: did anyone ever find out who the mystery Lady was? Did she achieve her goal of studying science?