attending science lectures in white tie -- 10/24/18

Today's selection -- from Empires of Light by Jill Jonnes. In the 1830s, Britain's Michael Faraday became one of the giants in the emerging field of electricity, discovering the principles involved in electromagnetic induction and inventing electromagnetic rotary devices that became the basis for electric motors. Albert Einstein is reputed to have kept only three pictures on his study wall: Faraday's, Isaac Newton's, and James Maxwell's.

"Faraday's own life, work, and stature became an inspiration and model for successive generations of scientists. Believing that Sir Humphry's wealth and titled eminence distracted from his whole­hearted pursuit of science, Michael Faraday politely turned down time-consuming titles, opportunities to earn a fortune, and all the socializing attendant on honors and wealth. A devout member of the small Sandemanian Christian sect, he lived modestly, quietly, and happily with his beloved wife upstairs at the Royal Institution. But down in the basement laboratory Michael Faraday was a veritable lion, a passionate and brilliant scientist of rare energy able to select and focus on the most meaningful, discerning problems. His scien­tific output was prodigious and fundamental, influencing peers in many fields. His laboratory notebooks set a standard of beautifully observed detail, organization, and honest record keeping. The charm of his prolific writings -- and his readiness to admit his many labora­tory failures on the road to experimental success -- earned him wide and enduring readership. His three-volume Experimental Researches in Electricity and Magnetism remains a classic.

"In the 1830s, ... Faraday truly took over the running of the Royal Institution. One of his first acts was to inaugurate the Friday evening discourses, as well as special Christmas lectures for children. Faraday, whose whole life course was radically and joyfully altered by his attendance at Sir Humphry's famously enthralling lectures, viewed these public events as highly important. Who could say which child might embrace a life of science after a Christmas lecture or which influential and enthusiastic member of the Friday night audience might decide to shower grateful guineas on the Royal Institution? In the age when laboratory science was truly coming to the fore, Michael Faraday was its greatest sage and prophet. He was fittingly also the institution's most scintillating and mesmerizing speaker, his handsome face full of passion, hair flying poetically as he moved flu­idly about to show his experiments before the packed amphitheater. The Friday evening lectures began promptly at 9:00 P.M. before an expectant, educated audience dressed formally as for the opera. Recalled one fan, 'His audience took fire with him, and every face was flushed.' Faraday's friend Tyndall wrote, 'He exercised a magic on his hearers which often sent them away persuaded that they knew all about a subject of which they knew but little. When the lecture ended promptly at 10:00 P.M., the animated audience drifted to the institution's magnificent two-tiered library, there to imbibe refresh­ments, view an exhibition based on the evening's topic, and marvel at science. Faraday's 1849 Christmas lecture for children, 'The Chemical History of a Candle,' is still read.

1857 portrait of Michael Faraday holding a bar magnet

"In the ensuing years, scientists and inventors in England, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the United States, and every Western nation all mightily endeavored to make electricity useful, exerting their mental faculties to the utmost in the wake of Faraday's magisterial work."

"Under Michael Faraday's ardent leadership, the Royal Institution became one of England's most important social and intellectual cen­ters when that nation was powerfully ascendant, attracting many eminent Victorians and luminaries, including Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, and T. H. Huxley. Wrote one Faraday biographer, 'Such was the prodigality of his output and the diversity of his skills that modern chemists, no less than physicists, engineers, and material scientists, regard him as the founder of their subjects: some sciences and technologies owe their very existence to his work .... He bequeathed to posterity a greater body of pure scientific achievement than any other physical scientist, and the practical consequences of his discoveries have profoundly influenced the nature of civilised life.' Faraday was uninterested in spending his own time making anything specifically practical or useful. 'A philosopher' Faraday explained, 'should be a man willing to listen to every suggestion but determined to judge for himself. He should not be biased by appearances, have no favourite hypothesis, be of no school and in doctrine have no master .... Truth should be his primary object. If these qualities be added to industry, he may indeed hope to walk within the Veil of the temple of nature.' And so, dedicated to the higher calling of Truth, Michael Faraday had little patience for utility. After he had demonstrated a new chemical process or opened a new electromag­netic realm and the inevitable question followed, 'What is its use?' Faraday liked to quote Benjamin Franklin, who had famously replied: ' "What is the use of an infant?"  The answer of the experimentalist is, "Endeavor to make it useful. "'

"In the ensuing years, scientists and inventors in England, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the United States, and every Western nation all mightily endeavored to make electricity useful, exerting their mental faculties to the utmost in the wake of Faraday's magisterial work."



Jill Jonnes


Empires of Light


Random House Trade Paperbacks


Copyright 2003 by Jill Jonnes


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