In my blogging on the history of science, I tend to focus on the details of classic experiments — the how, why, and what of scientific history — and don’t dwell as much on “who” actually does the work. The personalities that drive the research, however, say as much about how science gets done as the actual techniques, and I’ve been trying to deepen my understanding by learning a bit more about the famous figures of science.
To this end, I’ve started reading a number of biographies of famous physicists. Until I started looking, I was unaware that many of these biographies existed! The first on my list was Alan Hirshfeld’s biography of my favorite scientist of all time, Michael Faraday*, titled The Electric Life of Michael Faraday (2006):
I thought I’d share a few impressions about the book, and about Faraday in general!
If you were to ask people to name the “ideal” physicist, I’m guessing most people would name Albert Einstein, who was arguably one of the greatest theoretical physicists of all time. I would argue, however, that nobody really exemplifies the spirit of physics and of science in general better than Michael Faraday (1791-1867).
Faraday started from very humble origins at a time when science was a game exclusively for the upper class. The son of a blacksmith, he was apprenticing as a bookbinder when he discovered a text on chemistry that inspired him to perform his own rudimentary experiments. Someone of his class was practically forbidden from entering the scientific world, however, and his early appeals to the Royal Society for some menial job within their ranks were flat-out ignored. His amateur experiments managed to draw the attention of esteemed chemist Humphrey Davy, however, and he managed to gain an invitation to accompany Davy on his tour of the European continent as an assistant — and a personal valet.
Nevertheless, from such an inauspicious start, Faraday would go on to demonstrate experimentally the two-sided relationship between electricity and magnetism, now known as Faraday’s law of induction. He was hardly done there, however, and he also managed to demonstrate the relationship between magnetism and light, and the two experiments would pave the way to the paradigm-shifting realization that light is in fact an electromagnetic wave.
I could even describe more discoveries of Faraday that are now considered fundamental! Faraday’s recipe for success consisted of two simple ingredients — an amazing, even visionary, physical intuition, and a brilliant mind for devising and performing experiments. A cursory read of any of Faraday’s papers shows how deeply he thought about scientific problems and how thoroughly he explored them. He was so dedicated to his work, in fact, that he had to take a hiatus from research due to exhaustion, and was plagued throughout his later years by fatigue and memory problems.
In addition to his research, he was a brilliant and thorough lecturer, and delivered countless popular lectures on the nature of the physical world, several of which — The Forces of Matter and The Chemical History of a Candle — are still in print to this day. He ended his life as the preeminent scientist of his time, all the more amazing because he had almost no mathematical ability whatsoever.
Hirshfeld’s book gives a very enjoyable description of Faraday’s life and work. It is eminently readable, and quite concise, consisting of only 200 pages of text with an additional 30 pages of notes. Hirshfeld does a great job making Faraday’s discoveries understandable, and places both the man and his work in the proper context of the era. I’ve been digging a lot into Faraday’s life in my own blogging — I have both volumes of Faraday’s letters on my laptop in pdf form — but I still learned a lot of new things about him and really enjoyed every moment of his story. (I’m resisting the urge to share lots of anecdotes about Faraday — his life was pretty freakin’ fascinating.)
I can recommend Hirshfeld’s Electric Life, and I encourage folks to learn more about Faraday — he epitomizes scientific thinking and what a scientist should be.
Next up: either James Clerk Maxwell or Paul Dirac!