Mr. Magneto

Illustration by Brooks Salzwedel

In the fall of 2003, David Wilson stood behind a podium at the Santa Monica Museum of Art and began what must surely be one of the more curiously riveting lectures in that institution’s history by presenting to the art-savvy audience a cardboard tube wrapped in wire. Admirers of Wilson’s own institution, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, have come to expect the unexpected from its singular director, but few in the crowd were prepared for the peculiar alchemy of this demonstration. Without explanation, Wilson held aloft a small circular magnet and dropped it into the open tube. Confident in the law of gravity, we waited for its thud on the floor — but as if by magic, time appeared to suspend itself. Seconds passed before the disc appeared at the opening below, eliciting a collective gasp from the assembled crowd.

Wilson’s trick, breathtaking even to those who understood the magnetic interactions underlying it, served as an introduction to a lecture on the physicist Michael Faraday, by way of the moon and several other suitably Jurassic digressions. Though Faraday has not been the subject of a Jurassic exhibition, his spirit hangs over the enterprise; he is its unofficial patron saint. That connection was implicitly acknowledged in Lawrence Weschler’s delightfully offbeat Jurassic exegesis, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders, which opens with a Faraday quote: “Nothing is too wonderful to be true.” Written in a letter to a friend, Faraday’s epigram expresses at once his winning combination of optimism and enthusiasm and a certain ineluctable, almost perversely unscientific, faith in the miraculous potentials inherent in the natural world.

Glad news it is, then, to fans of the wonderful that Faraday finally has the biography he deserves. In The Electric Life of Michael Faraday, Alan Hirshfeld illuminates, with surpassing grace and a playful spirit, the life and work of the physicist who pioneered the study of magnetism and electricity and laid the foundations for the modern electrical age. Though Faraday has been the subject of many scholarly studies, this is the first book in half a century that brings him into popular gaze. Given the recent fashion for popular science histories, that is surprising, for few scientists have changed the foundations of our thinking so deeply, and fewer still have such romantic personal stories.

Born into poverty in the village of Newington, England, in 1791, Faraday is sometimes known as the Cinderella of science. Apprenticed to a bookbinder at the age of 14, he had no reason to believe the doors of science would ever be open to the likes of him. It was serendipity that brought the muse to his door. In 1810, Faraday was given the task of binding volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, wherein he discovered an article on the then-new subject of electricity. Written by the first Scotsman to ascend in a hot-air balloon, the article alluded to competing views about the nature of electrical “fluids” and went on to propose the author’s own highly fanciful ideas about the subject. As Hirshfeld tells us, the piece “electrified” Faraday and set him on a path that would ultimately revolutionize the science of physics.

But how was Michael Faraday, an unknown nobody with no university education, to enter the hallowed world of scientific research? The only possible answer was unremitting hard work. He began as a bottle washer in the laboratory of the age’s scientific superstar, Humphry Davy, himself a child of the provincial middle class. Davy also had risen by force of his innate genius — that and his unique talent for showmanship. As Hirshfeld writes, London at the time “bubbled with scientific and pseudoscientific spectacles . . . On any given night, audiences could thrill to lightning bolts at the Theater of Science on Pall Mall; watch the guillotined ‘head’ of the great French chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier materialize from the mists of the Phantasmagoria at the Lyceum; or witness hair-raising fulminations of the ‘devil’s element,’ phosphorus, at the Royal Institution on Albemarle Street.”

In the theater of science, Davy was the star performer, and fashionable London flocked to the Royal Institution to hear his spectacular lectures. Gunpowder explosions, dazzling carbon arcs of light, chemical displays of color, electric-pen drawings and giant sparks were all part of the proceedings, each dished up with lashings of Davy’s trademark Byronic prose: “Not content with what is found upon the surface of the earth,” he once rhapsodized about chemistry, “[man] has penetrated into her bosom, and has even searched the bottom of the ocean for the purpose of allaying the restlessness of his desires.” Among his regular audience was the proto-hippie poet-prince Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who attended Davy’s lectures, Hirshfeld writes, whenever he needed “to renew his stock of metaphors.”

There was no way a simple soul like Faraday, a lifelong member of an obscure Protestant sect known as the Sandemanians, could compete with the giantism of a man like Davy. But gradually Faraday’s scientific achievements began to outshine his mentor’s. In 1821, he demonstrated how a wire carrying an electric current could be made to revolve around a magnet. In effect, he had created the precursor to the electric motors now found in everything from automobiles to hair dryers. In 1831, Faraday achieved the opposite effect, showing how spinning a metal plate within the poles of a magnet could generate an electric current. Asked by then–Prime Minister Robert Peel what use the new device might be, Faraday supposedly replied, “I know not, but I wager that one day your government will tax it.” Faraday’s dynamo is the model on which electric power has been generated ever since.

By the time Humphry Davy died in 1829, Faraday had replaced him as head of the Royal Institution and was on his way — albeit reluctantly — to becoming a superstar himself. Following Davy’s example, Faraday understood that in order to get public financial support for science, one had to first light the flame of public excitement. Faraday’s Friday Evening Discourses were of a quieter stripe than Davy’s rhetorical flourishes, but nonetheless thrilling, and indeed they have entered the mythos of science. By the end of his life, Faraday was undisputedly the greatest experimental physicist of the age — many physicists would say the greatest of any age. He discovered electromagnetic induction and diamagnetism, pioneered the science of electrochemistry, liquefied gases, redesigned lighthouse lamps, and applied himself to a thousand other practical problems. He saved lives by improving the safety of miners’ lights, and, as Hirshfeld tells us, at the Admiralty’s request, “he tested methods of drying meats and fishes, measured gases emitted by aging eggs, and assessed the purity of military-issue oatmeal.”

All the while, this humble son of a blacksmith was dreaming about a theory of everything. And this is where he came a cropper — for much as Faraday was admired as an experimentalist, so he was ridiculed for his theoretical speculations about the foundations of reality. He had come to believe that the basic forces of nature — magnetism, the electric force, gravity and even light — all arose from the actions of invisible fields. (The pattern of iron filings around a magnet served as his exemplar.) But in the concrete age of steam engines, ineffable fields seemed to most men of science like a superstitious throwback to magic, and Faraday died knowing that his idea was not taken seriously by the scientific establishment.

History, however, has vindicated him. Soon after Faraday’s death, field theory became the foundation for our understanding of all nature’s forces: General relativity is today a field theory of gravity, and quantum physics now gives us a field theory of light and matter. Few Cinderellas have shone so brightly at science’s ball. Hirshfeld, a physicist himself, has not just written a first-rate portrait of this truly wonderful life, but also given us an insightful, inspired and deeply humanistic account of science in this seminal age — an era when, as Faraday stressed, man’s engagement with the world still fell under the rubric of “natural philosophy.”

Catapulting us back 200 years before particle accelerators and deep-space telescopes, Hirshfeld reminds us — as all great science writing should — what sheer fun science can be and what wondrous powers nature can evince not just inside atoms and stars, but here and now and graspable by human hands.

THE ELECTRIC LIFE OF MICHAEL FARADAY | By ALAN HIRSHFELD | Walker & Co. | 258 pages | $24 hardcover

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