Capturing excitement of scientific discovery


December 12, 2004|By David Kohn | David Kohn,SUN STAFF

A Life of Discovery: Michael Faraday, Giant of The Scientific Revolution

By James Hamilton. Random House. 480 pages. $35.

Next time you use a toaster or turn on the stereo, thank Michael Faraday. Although he didn't discover electricity, he did uncover many of its most important laws, enabling humans to turn what had been a curiosity into an enormously useful power source.

Faraday was an unusual man. Reclusive and sickly, he belonged to a small, rigid, fundamentalist Christian sect. At the same time, he was recognized by peers as a scientific genius, and mingled with some of the leading lights of Victorian England.

In his new biography, A Life of Discovery, James Hamilton tries to place Faraday in this cultural and social context. An art historian who previously wrote a biography of English painter JMW Turner, Hamilton focuses less on Faraday's scientific discoveries than on his personal relationships and contacts with contemporary thinkers, writers and artists.

Faraday's early life sounds like something out of Dickens. The son of an ailing, unsuccessful blacksmith, he grew up poor in London, and had little formal schooling.

In 1805, at the age of 14, he was apprenticed to a bookbinder. He showed talent, and was encouraged by his master to read the books brought in for binding. In this way, Faraday educated himself on a wide range of subjects, especially science.

After finishing his apprenticeship, he got a job as a lab assistant to Humphry Davy, who was among the world's leading scientists. Faraday soon began making breakthroughs of his own, and over the next several decades, he worked on an enormous range of topics, including optics, the improvement of lighthouse illumination, even the best way to clean paintings fouled by London's polluted air. But he is most famous for his work on electromagnetism, and was the first to show that electricity could produce mechanical motion. Hamilton captures the public's fascination with science during Faraday's time. Technological discoveries were rapidly changing the nature of everyday life, and science acquired a certain sexiness, a bit like the Internet during the dot-com boom. "Faraday's lectures," novelist George Eliot noted, "are as fashionable an amusement as the Opera."

Faraday belonged to the Sandemanians, a small Christian group that lived strictly by their reading of the bible and required complete obedience from members. Hamilton is attuned to the inherent conflict for Faraday, an inflexible faith on the one hand and his wide-ranging pursuit of objective knowledge on the other. Faraday resolved the incongruity, Hamilton decides, in the only way he could, by compartmentalizing these two aspects of his life, doing his best to keep them separate.

The book is weakest on the scientific details - the nuts and bolts of the discoveries themselves. I was left wanting more Popular Science explication about what exactly it was that Faraday deduced, and why these breakthroughs were so significant.

At the same time, Hamilton does convey the excitement of doing science in the 19th century. Even the best scientists were often self-trained amateurs, and were making things up as they went along: Experiments frequently ended in unexpected explosions, and a single experiment could lead to a world-changing insight.

More than anything else, Faraday and many of his contemporaries were driven by this sheer delight in discovery, the idea that with a few tools, and some logic and luck, they could unlock the secrets of the physical world. As amazing as today's science can be, it lacks this sense of the power and possibility of the individual mind.

David Kohn writes about science and medicine for The Sun.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.