Monday, 30 March 2009

The Electric Life of Michael Faraday – Alan Hirshfeld ****

This book is a fascinating look at the scientific life of Michael Faraday, the man whose major discoveries made possible electrical generators and transformers. Interestingly Faraday had no formal scientific training yet became one of the all-time great experimentalists. Not only was he an accomplished scientist, but from Alan Hirshfeld’s description, he was an amazing man as well. He had the foresight to know that future generations might prove his scientific work incorrect. Although this did not really happen, it demonstrated his great belief in the scientific method. He was indeed the ultimate experimental physicist and he truly cared for the accuracy of data. Although he was highly religious, he was able to separate his scientific self from his religious self and did not allow his beliefs to taint his scientific conclusions.
The book is titled The Electric Life of Michael Faraday but Hirshfeld is very selective when it comes to describing Faraday’s life. He does a very credible job of communicating his scientific work, but there are large gaps in Faraday’s personal story. His marriage was mentioned only in passing. I can’t help but feel that my knowledge of Faraday is cursory, that there is a lot missing. Hirshfeld’s writing style was comfortable; the story moves along at a good clip and is very compelling reading.
Hirshfeld does an admirable job of covering Faraday’s relationship with prominent British chemist Humphrey Davy and thoroughly explains the resistance (no pun intended) Faraday faced to his ideas because he had no formal education and was unable to couch his discoveries in mathematical terms. This was later done by James Clerk Maxwell, as explained in The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell by Basil Mahon. I read these two books consecutively and it gave a great overview of 19th century British physics. I recommend that anyone interested in the history of science read both of these books and in historical order (Faraday first, then Maxwell).
Review by Stephen Goldberg

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