Those of us in science like to envision our profession as a noble (“Nobel”?) calling, above the petty squabbles that taint other endeavors. The reality, of course, is that science is susceptible to politics just like any other field. One can argue that, as a community, we tend to rise above such things in the end, but each of us inevitably has some sort of eye-opening introduction to political ploys.
I remember my own very well: while I was still a graduate student in high-energy physics, I was sitting next to my advisor listening to various students and postdocs present their research to the overall collaboration. Most talks went smoothly and uncontested, but when my advisor’s postdoc presented, he was bombarded with an extended series of almost hostile questions. I leaned over and asked my advisor why the postdoc was getting such a hard time. My advisor replied, in essence, “One answer is that this is an important result and everyone wants to make sure we get it right. Another answer is that I’m his advisor.”
Even the greats have had their moments when their idealistic views were first tempered by a dose of cynical reality. A particularly amusing anecdote is related to the great physicist and chemist Michael Faraday (1791-1867), when he first applied for a position with the famous chemist Humphry Davy.
Early in his life, the odds were stacked against Faraday ever even starting a science career. His father was a poor blacksmith working in the very class-regimented English society, and scientists were drawn from the upper-class and wealthy elites. Early on, Faraday himself certainly didn’t imagine he would eventually be a giant of science: at age 14 he began a seven-year apprenticeship as a bookbinder to binder and seller George Ribeau, and it probably seemed he was destined for such a humble career.
The book business gave Faraday opportunities to read widely on a variety of topics, however, and he became inspired to study science thanks to the book Conversations in Chemistry, by Jane Marcet. Faraday started implementing his own simple experiments in chemistry and electricity and, with his master’s blessing, attended some public lectures on natural philosophy by one Mr. Tatum. In 1812, as Faraday’s apprenticeship ended, a contact he had made at the bookshop gave him the opportunity to attend lectures by the famous chemist Humphry Davy. Faraday took detailed notes of the lectures, and was sufficiently inspired to write to the president of the Royal Society to inquire about possible employment. The official response to the porter who brought Faraday’s letter to the president was, “no answer”.
Now we come near to the punchline of this post! At the end of 1812, Faraday’s desperation to enter the sciences and escape the book business spurred him to appeal to Humphry Davy directly about a position. He wrote about the experience later in life to one J.A. Paris, M.D. in 1829:
My desire to escape from trade, which I thought vicious and selfish, and to enter into the service of Science, which I imagined made its pursuers amiable and liberal, induced me at last to take the bold and simple step of writing to Sir H. Davy, expressing my wishes, and a hope that if an opportunity came in his way he would favour my views; at the same time, I sent the notes I had taken of his lectures.
Davy wrote back in a very favorable and encouraging manner, on December 24, 1812:
Sir,– I am far from displeased with the proof you have given me of your confidence, and which displays great zeal, power of memory, and attention. I am obliged to go out of town, and shall not be settled in town till the end of January; I will then see you at any time you wish. It would gratify me to be of any service to you; I wish it may be in my power.
I am, Sir, your obedient humble servant, H. Davy.
In a first interview, Davy was encouraging, but did not have a position available at that time for Faraday. However, soon after in early 1813, Davy called on Faraday again (Faraday to Paris):
You will observe that this took place at the end of the year 1812; and early in 1813 he requested to see me, and told me of the situation of assistant in the laboratory of the Royal Institution, then just vacant.
At the same time that he thus gratified my desires as to scientific employment, he still advised me not to give up the prospects I had before me, telling me that Science was a harsh mistress, and in a pecuniary point of view but poorly rewarding those who devoted themselves to her service. He smiled at my notion of the superior moral feelings of philosophic men, and said he would leave me to the experience of a few years to set me right on that matter.
(Emphasis mine!) This passage paints a deliciously delightful picture in my mind: young, innocent Michael Faraday being humorously schooled on the realities of scientific labors by a more experienced and cynical Humphry Davy!
The rest, as they say, is history. From his humble position as an assistant at the Royal Institution, Faraday would go on to make fundamental contributions to physics and chemistry, including the unification of electricity and magnetism and the demonstration of the link between magnetism and light.
This little anecdote is wonderful to me because, at the same time it hints at the cynical politics in science, it highlights the graciousness of one of its participants! Without Davy’s faith and kindness to Faraday, it is likely we would never have been exposed to Faraday’s brilliance, and physics may have progressed at a much slower pace.
(Postscript: For the scientists out there: do you remember your first encounter with the politics of science! Feel free to share in comments!)
Quotes and image of Ribeau’s shop taken from Dr. Bence Jones, The Life and Letters of Faraday (J.B. Lippincott and Co., Philadelphia, 1870).