Faith and Science, Together
A Brief Sketch of the Life of Michael Faraday
“‘If I justify myself mine own mouth shall condemn me: if I say I am perfect, it shall prove me perverse’” (qtd. in Faraday Biography 105). Michael Faraday fervently agreed with these words found in the book of Job. This same man, nonetheless, radically changed science in the 19th century. Though he claimed to maintain a level of separation between his faith and his research, his scientific worldview was in many ways formed by his Christian convictions. It was with such a moral foundation that he practiced the disciplines for which he became admired and made the great discoveries for which he became known. The general understanding of the physical world in the present time owes much to the experimentation and ideas of this natural philosopher.
Faraday was not born into wealth. Although his father had begun quite well as a blacksmith, business waned due to the effects of the American and French revolutions upon the British economy. Michael was born in Newington Surrey on the 22nd of September, 1791, after Mr. James Faraday had moved the family there in an attempt to find more work. Unfortunately, his father’s “hopes of prosperity came to nothing” (Forbes and Mahon 20) as business was scarce even in London and as his efforts were further sabotaged by a loss of health. The family endured such poverty that Michael had to survive for a week on a single loaf when he was ten years old. Nonetheless, throughout his youth, the future scientist was blessed with not only a father who was devoted to God, but also with a mother who, according to L. Pearce Williams, was “the mainstay of the family” (Michael Faraday Facts). She was faithful and steady throughout their frugal lives together. It was in these circumstances that Michael Faraday’s character was formed into the humble God-fearing man that is made evident both in the writings of his youth and in letters he sent throughout his life.
Michael Faraday’s life-long scientific journey began when he was apprenticed to a bookbinder. Taking advantage of reading the books in the shop, it was one on electricity that particularly inspired his passion for scientific inquiry. During his free time, he would perform small-scale experiments with his few resources. When describing a voltaic pile he made to his friend, he wrote: “the first I completed contained the immense number of seven pair of Plates! And of the immense size of half-pence each!” (Vol I Correspondence 4). Yet the humorous and enthused young dabbler went on to demonstrate the electrolytic decomposition of Magnesium Sulfate by dipping wires connected to both ends of this pile into a solution of the salt. This interest eventually outgrew his resources, so much so that he asked for a position as an aide in a laboratory to do work of some kind, “however menial” (Faraday Biography 28). A little while after sending his notes to Sir Humphrey Davy from one of the elder chemist’s lectures he had attended, Faraday was offered a position as laboratory assistant to the world renowned scientist.
Although Faraday lacked an extensive education as a child, his meticulous dedication to self-improvement rendered him able to acquire the full repertoire of skills for which he came to be admired throughout his life. Referring to himself regarding his imperfect handwriting and punctuation, he wrote to his friend: “Epistolary writing is one cure for these deficiencies. therefore, MF should practice Epistolary writing” (Vol. I Correspondence 4). This humble and proactive resolution actually became an important factor in the trajectory of Faraday’s life. When his apprenticeship master Mr. Ribeau showed a customer some notes that Faraday had written, “Mr. Dance was impressed beyond words at Faraday’s work” (Forbes and Mahon 27). This customer remembered Faraday, and later, when Davy was temporarily half-blinded by an experiment, he recommended Faraday to the experimenter as an interim writing assistant. Although this employment period was short, it was this brief partnership that put Michael into the optimal position to request lab work from him in the same year.
As his scientific life grew, Faraday had also invested particular attention to observing the elements of good lecture experiences, and he identified three as the most essential: clear speech, well-ordered demonstrations, and a comfortable atmosphere. His application of this study resulted in him becoming known as a particularly admirable lecturer himself. The quality of his self-discipline is witnessed in the comments of Lady Holland who mentioned these very qualities: “‘as he stood at the lecture table with . . . all his experimental apparatus about him, - the whole in such perfect order . . . He was completely master of the situation; he had his audience at his command, and he could give his eloquence full sway’” (qtd. in Faraday Biography 333).
Underlying the humility through which he acquired such virtues was, in addition to the formation he acquired from his family, the foundation of the scientist’s Sandemenian faith. This community held the truths of God’s love for man through Christ’s redemptive sacrifice very dear, and they even practiced asceticism in gratitude. However, this religious formation not only inspired his moral principles, but also affected his attitude towards science. He was acutely aware of the fallibility of Man and the immorality of pride. He believed that discussion and argument were necessary to bring man ever closer to truth and warned against the egotistical belief that one could not err or be corrected. Putting such principles into practice and often refraining from expressing his own theories without rigorous physical proof, he became a thorough and meticulous experimenter.
Michael Faraday devoted much of his research investigating the unity of forces, an idea that was primarily inspired by Kantian Philosophy. He found that electricity and matter were related in the chemical decomposition process of electrolysis, magnetism and electricity were related in electromagnetic induction, and, by observing the orientation of light passing through certain glasses, he found that even magnetism and light were unified in some way. Interestingly, Michael Faraday was so convinced that all forces must be related that in his last years he expended much effort in experiments to find the relationship between gravity and the electromagnetic forces. Once, he wound a coil of wire inside a tower and dropped a heavy weight from 165 feet high through it. This setup is similar in pattern to his electromagnetic induction apparatus in which a magnet is passed through a coil of wire. Despite the contrary lack of success in his gravity experiments, he wrote, “‘they do not shake my strong feeling of the existence of a relation between gravity and electricity, though they give no proof that such a relation exists’” (qtd. in Faraday Biography 469). His surmise remained to the end of his life.
Besides these great discoveries, he also did valuable work as a scientist that affected the practical needs of the people of his time. His brother, who worked at a gas lighting company, asked Michael for advice regarding the benefit his company’s innovations. The scientist was able to reassure him that with “ventilated gas burners . . . the quantity of heat carried off by the flues would reduce the heating effect of your lamps below that of oil lamps . . . As to the sweetness of the air . . . the other modes cannot compare with yours” (Vol. I Correspondence 409) Among the industries Faraday investigated earlier in his career were methods to best preserve stored food for sea travel, metal combinations to improve steel alloys, and processes that increased the quality of optical glass. Faraday also played a direct role in the era of the electric telegraph by aiding a project that laid a connecting wire between England and America. The fact that the line was laid under the ocean presented a problem: all of the known insulation materials covering the wires had a tendency to deteriorate in ocean water. Even tar would fail to maintain its integrity. After an experimental investigation, Faraday solved the issue by suggesting the use of the latex from the sap of the Gutta-Percha tree.
Though blessed with exceptional physical health, throughout his life he suffered from an anxiety regarding the performance of his mental health, and as he aged, what worried him became more pronounced. Increasingly often, he had to pause his research work for several years. Faraday, however, accepted this inconvenience meekly. “‘I would gladly give half my strength for as much memory - but what have I to do with that? Be thankful’” (qtd. in Forbes and Mahon 95) Interestingly, Faraday was actually not really sedentary during these times. He would write for the Royal Institution as well as give lectures. On a several month long vacation to a lake, he and his brother in law walked for over thirty miles on single a day. Nonetheless, towards the late 1850’s Faraday became less and less able to maintain any mental labor, and eventually he ended his research fearing that he may unwittingly plagiarize another’s work. Though he surprisingly retained for a while the ability to write well, in 1862 senility had so conquered his mental faculties that he lost this ability as well. A letter written in 1865 reveals his state: “I am employing my dear niece to write all my letters for me – my memory will not go from the middle of one line to the middle of the next. . .” (Vol. II Correspondence 810). On the 25th of August, 1867, he died while relaxed in a chair in his residence in Hampton Court.
Over a century later, most of the world now heavily relies on the electrical energy made possible by Michael Faraday’s discoveries. Nikola Tesla took his principles of electrical induction and engineered an alternating current generator design that is now used to power the world’s cities. Though unsupported by his contemporaries, Faraday believed that forces and light acted in lines of force in the space surrounding their source of propagation, rather than simply appearing upon the distant object upon which the forces were visibly acting. This idea of the existence of force fields led Maxwell to formulate his famous set of field equations. This in turn led Einstein to climactically formulate the Theory of Relativity, all less than forty years after Faraday’s death. Even Faraday’s idea about “electrogravity was revived . . . in Einstein’s general relativity” (Agassi 7). Though in his life Faraday had so refused any title that even his tomb stone held nothing more than simply “Michael Faraday”, today he is called “The Father of Electricity” in recognition of the importance of his scientific contributions to humanity. This natural philosopher, the son of a blacksmith, truly changed the world.
Agassi, Joseph. Faraday as a natural philosopher. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971. Print.
Forbes, Nancy and Basil Mahon. Faraday, Maxwell, And The Electromagnetic Field. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2014. Print.
The Selected Correspondence of Michael Faraday. Edited by L. Pearce Williams, Vol I, Cambridge: The University Press, 1971. Print.
The Selected Correspondence of Michael Faraday. Edited by L. Pearce Williams, Vol II, Cambridge: The University Press, 1971. Print.
Williams, L. Pearce. Michael Faraday: A Biography. New York: Basic Books, 1965. Print.
Williams, L. Pearce. "Michael Faraday, facts, information, _ pictures." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Encyclopedia.com. 20 Mar. 2017<http://www.encyclopedia.com>.