- The Electric Life of Michael Faraday
- Walker & Company, 256 pp.
An Electric Life
The Electric Life of Michael Faraday by Alan Hirshfeld tells the story of how Faraday and electricity shaped one another. It makes for easy and engaging reading. At the same time, the book piques the reader’s interest at the depth and expanse of the scientific problems Faraday grappled with, and in most cases, elegantly resolved.
Faraday represents a confluence – of ideas, disciplines, and pursuits – which seems nearly a bunch of contradictions in these cynically specialized times. He was a discoverer and an inventor, a physicist and a chemist, intensely focused on his own research and equally involved in disseminating rational awareness among the laity, a champion of scientific outlook and devoutly attached to organized religion.
The book’s narration traces a chronological sequence of events from Faraday’s birth – the third child of an indigent blacksmith – to his death from old age as the preeminent experimental scientist of his, and perhaps any age. The author uses copious references, from letters, journals and even Faraday’s seminal work Experimental Researches on Electricity. The edition I read was marked “Advance Reading Copy” and had the cross references missing, which would surely not be the case when the book is commercially distributed.
Hirshfeld treats two of Faraday’s scientific associations with great sensitivity and elan : with Sir Humphrey Davy, who was all of Faraday’s mentor, peer, rival and detractor and James Clerk Maxwell, who gave Faraday’s formulations the bedrock of mathematical certitude. Davy and Maxwell, had deep influence – in their own ways – on Faraday’s scientific legacy, though their approaches to the practice of science were antithetical to Faraday’s.
The book examines in great detail Faraday’s efforts at spreading science in society. Descriptions of the weekly evening lectures and the demonstrations to children, which Faraday engaged in up to an advanced age, and all through the time he was pursuing his own research vigorously, give an interesting glimpse into his ambassadorial role. In this context, one wonders how much of an actual standing Faraday had with the policy makers and public of his time. Was it something in the order of the apostle of science image (with commensurate moral clout!) Einstein was endowed with in the first half of the twentieth century? C.P. Snow, in his Variety of Men, gives us food for thought, “Nothing is easier to avoid than publicity. If one genuinely doesn’t want it, one doesn’t get it. Einstein was under no compulsion to travel around the world. If he had retired … he could have reveled in obscurity. But he didn’t.“
Faraday’s researches and his livelihood were supported to a large, if not entire extent, by institutional patronage. It goes to the credit of the author that he highlights some of the utilitarian projects Faraday had to undertake – at the cost of his own (much more consequential research) – to justify the sponsorship. For those associated with the scientific industry of the present, these accounts give insights into the demands of the scientific establishment of another age.
The keynote in lives such as Michael Faraday’s is something, which for the want of a pithier phrase may be called the scientific experience. Faraday’s involvement with science was not merely vocational, not even just inspirational. He lived science in the most organic sense of the term. And Hirshfeld’s writing makes sincere and largely successful efforts at conveying this unifying purpose of Faraday’s life. This is not an easy task, not even in view of Hirshfeld’s own scientific background. What I liked most about Hirshfeld’s narrative is his conscious avoidance of a tone that would have undermined the back-breaking labor that went into Faraday’s research in favor of the glamour of his successes. The latter alas, is often the primary focus of many who write about science and scientific personalities.
Perhaps some more light on Faraday’s personal life and relationships would not have been out of place : the reader is left with a rather one-dimensional impression of his wife and close confidants. Faraday’s drive and determination, coupled with knowledge of the veiled disdain some of the leading scientific lights of his times had for him due to his confessed lack of theoretical grooming, was a potent mixture for sentiments not wholly congruous to the image of an ascetic inventor. We do not know whether Faraday had the occasion to harbor such feelings – great scientists had them, to wit Newton and Leibniz – and the author hardly lets us know.
Hirshfeld employs a diction which at times borders on the florid; talking about Faraday’s work in his declining years, he says, “But Faraday’s self-exhortations proved increasingly fruitless. With each year, his experimental paths narrowed and eventually disappeared into the dense undergrowth of his own confusion.” More economy with words might have deepened the pathos of the final dimming of that giant mind.
We recently procured one of those flashlights for our home; the ones with no batteries which give light on shaking. Couple of days back, while using it amid yet another power outage, the mystery of magnetism, electricity, and motion meshed yet another time into the magic of Michael Faraday. Faraday was light.
In essence, The Electric Life of Michael Faraday by Alan Hirshfeld is a book which every serious reader of science should find absorbing. This is a book for whom science is not merely predicated by papers, publications, and grant proposals; but for whom science is a way of life.