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An unlikely scientific pioneer

Michael Faraday, Giant of the Scientific Revolution; James Hamilton; Random House: 496 pp., $35

December 10, 2004|Anthony Day | Special to The Times

A Life of Discovery

Michael Faraday, Giant of the Scientific Revolution

James Hamilton

Random House: 496 pp., $35


Michael Faraday (1791-1867) stands out as an anomaly in the world of British science in the 19th century.

Most of the scientists of the day were what the British called gentlemen; Faraday was the son of a poor blacksmith who died young. Most were of the established Anglican church; Faraday was of the Sandemanians, a small, severe Protestant sect steeped in the Bible. Many scientists had what we now call egos, and let them show; Faraday was a sweet-tempered man whose unflagging ambition was to promote knowledge without seeking rewards for himself.

He developed the first dynamo, discovered the principles of electromagnetic induction, did extensive work on electrolysis and made significant breakthroughs in chemistry.

All the while he lectured regularly in London, making science and its principles understandable to a wide audience. By the 1840s, writes James Hamilton in "A Life of Discovery," he was "the most respected single individual in world science."

Hamilton, a British art historian who has specialized in J.M.W. Turner, writes of Faraday with, as he says, a special point of view: Rather than focusing on the science alone, he puts Faraday in the context of British culture. The result is a beguiling portrait of a man and his era.

"The only comparable figure to Faraday in public life in the 1850s was Charles Dickens," Hamilton writes, adding: "Both were showmen who thrived on the excitement of public performance ... and both wanted to teach, to reach the widest possible audience, to change society, to improve lives and to open minds."

Faraday's base was the Royal Institution, which was devoted to the promotion of science and its applications in technology. He arrived there very young as an assistant to the then-leading British scientist, Humphry Davy. Perhaps the most charming part of "A Life of Discovery" is the account, largely from Faraday's journal, of the grand tour in which Davy led his family through continental Europe with Faraday as his assistant just after the final defeat of Napoleon.

It is the very picture of freshness: the English travelers' happiness at being able to once more go abroad; young Faraday's discovery of great scenes like the Alps and his delight in the details of daily European life; their meetings with eminent continental scientists.

If Faraday grumbled at Davy's treating him like a servant and Davy's wife's imperiousness, the young man's interest in everything he saw and everyone he met is infectious.

Faraday's enthusiasm carried him to the end of his days, when he and his wife shared a "grace and favor" apartment at Hampton Court Palace courtesy of Queen Victoria. He had turned down a knighthood, perhaps because of Sandemanian scruples.

Hamilton frankly confesses he hasn't been able to find out much definitive on the Sandemanian effect on Faraday. The era in which he lived was one of increasing strain between science and religion. The rift had begun in geology, when it was discovered that the evident history of rocks and sediments in the earth could not be accounted for in the Biblical story of Noah's flood a mere 6,000 years before.

Faraday seems, though, to have kept science and religion in separate compartments in his life, though there is evidence of some sort of dispute with his coreligionists.

His story is that of an even-tempered man who sought only to advance human knowledge. He was always ready to help solve technological problems of national interest, like the improvement of lighthouses, so vital to Britain as a maritime power.

His few displays of bad temper were reserved for the popular crazes of mesmerism (a form of hypnotism) and communing with spirits from beyond the grave.

Hamilton does justice both to a most likable and unusual man and to a nation in an era of exciting innovation in science and technology.


Anthony Day is a regular contributor to Book Review.

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