The Electric Life of Michael Faraday by Alan Hirshfeld

A passing mention in last week’s post about impostors and underdogs got me thinking about Michael Faraday again, and I went looking for a good biography of him. The last time looked, I didn’t find any in electronic form, probably because the Sony Reader store has a lousy selection. I got a Nook for Christmas, though, and this time, Alan Hirshfeld’s 2006 biography, The Electric Life of Michael Faraday was right there, so I picked it up and read it over the weekend.

It was a fast read, both because this is a short popular biography– 250-odd pages– and because Faraday’s life story makes for compelling reading. He was born to a poor family in 1791, and seemed destined for life as a bookbinder, a prospect he found very depressing. While reading manuscripts sent to the shop where he was an apprentice, though, he developed two passions that would shape the rest of his life: a relentless drive for self-improvement, and a deep fascination with science.

Together, these brought him into contact with Sir Humphrey Davy, one of the stars of British science at that time, and through a great stroke of luck, Faraday managed to get hired on as Humphrey’s assistant and sometimes valet. And the rest, as they say, is history: his incredible gift for experimental science quickly made him an essential part of the Royal Institution, where he worked for the remainder of his life, and where he made essential contributions to physics, chemistry, and materials science, among others. Faraday was famously one of three scientists whose portrait Einstein kept in his office (the others were Newton and Maxwell), and Hirshfeld does a nice job of laying out the discoveries that justified that high regard.

Hirshfeld is an astrophysicist, so it’s not to surprising that this book does a nice job of explaining Faraday’s many contributions to science. The other major focus of the book is on Faraday’s religious faith, and the effect this had on his life and character. Faraday was a member of the Sandemanian sect, a Protestant offshoot that preached a form of Biblical literalism and placed great emphasis on humility. It’s in large part due to this upbringing that Faraday is one of the few titans of British science in the 1800’s without a “Sir” or “Lord” in his name– he never sought and in fact actively refused some high honors. Late in life, he was given a country house by Queen Victoria, but he was never knighted or granted a title. The only honor he seems to have had an active part in acquiring is fellowship in the Royal Society, which was part of a falling-out with Davy, and Hirshfeld says that Faraday always resented having had to promote himself during that dispute.

As this is a short popular biography, of course, there are a lot of little points that seem like they could’ve been fleshed out more. Hirshfeld mentions repeatedly that Faraday’s intuitive and non-mathematical mode of operating in physics was looked down upon by other scientists of the day, but doesn’t go into a great deal of detail about it. It would’ve been nice to know more about his mathematical deficiencies and what other physicists thought of them. There’s also a somewhat curious omission in his personal life– while Hirshfeld provides a touching description of Faraday’s courtship of Sarah Barnard, he never says anything about the fact that they had no children, which seems odd. There are some quotes from nieces who recalled being doted on by their Uncle Mike at the Royal Institution, but no discussion of Faraday’s own lack of family. But, again, given the subgenre to which it belongs, it’s probably not a bad thing if these motivate the reader to look up other books on Faraday.

(Hirshfeld also has to contend with one of the great problems for biographers of nice people: other than the one run-in with Davy when he was a young man, he was never embroiled in any great controversy. Nobody seems to have a negative word for Faraday, who was apparently an incredibly nice person, who made a favorable impression on everybody who knew him. Which is great if your goal is to be a good person, but makes life difficult for your biographers…)

I knew the broad outlines of the story before reading this book– bookbinder, assistant/valet, great experimentalist– but the more complete portrait that emerges from this book only makes Faraday seem more fascinating. His self-discipline in particular is incredibly impressive, both in his dedication to always improving his science and the absolute compartmentalization of his deep religious faith and his rigorous scientific pursuits. If you’d like to know a bit more about one of the most important (and somewhat overlooked) figures in 19th century physics, this is a good, quick read that will make you want to know more..

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