Book Review: A Life of Discovery: Michael Faraday, Giant of the Scientific Revolution

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By James Hamilton, Random House, 2004. ISBN 1400060168.

Reviewed by Reggie Smith

The other day I read a saddening article in the New York Times about the decline of the science fair (“It May Be a Sputnik Moment, but Science Fairs Are Lagging” NYT February 5, 2011). It talks about the decline of science fairs in recent years driven by a combination of budget crunch, lack of student interest (or involvement in other activities), and teachers not having time to participate since they are judged increasingly by standardized test scores. I admit, though I am an amateur scientist, I was never good at science fairs. I wasn't too organized as a kid and had terrible visual presentation skills. This combined with a penchant for procrastination meant I only ever got a 3rd place at the school level. However, I still loved science and the concept. I ended up drifting towards chemistry sets and model rocketry (another pair of declining hobbies) but nevertheless I recognize how valuable these fairs had been in engaging students in the scientific process.

The article made me wonder what past scientists would have thought about current attitudes towards science and Michael Faraday among others popped into my head. Not just because he was a great scientist, one of the greatest, but that I had read a great biography on him several months ago. James Hamilton has put together a very readable and engaging account of Faraday, the man and scientist.

Michael Faraday wasn't destined for greatness. The son of a blacksmith, he was a bookbinder's apprentice when he stumbled upon books about chemistry which interested him in science. Lesson one: interest in science is not innate and has to be nurtured. He ended up attending many of the popular lectures at the Royal Society by Sir Humphrey Davy, the science rock star of his day and chemistry pioneer, now largely forgotten. In the heavily class stratified Edwardian society Faraday grew up in, it wasn't easy to get a position at the Royal Society, especially for a poor boy, but after great persistence and when one of Davy's assistants stormed out in a temper tantrum, Michael got his chance.

His life reads like an adventure novel. The poor son of a blacksmith who becomes one of the greatest figures in Victorian England. His fervent faith as a member of what is a now extinct Christian sect called Sandemanians and his reconciliation of his Christianity with his scientific worldview. His travels with Davy through Napoleonic France, then a mortal enemy of Great Britain. A race against French scientists by Davy and himself to discover and isolate iodine Later, his rise to prominence, first in chemistry, and then by discovering magnetic induction. The betrayal by his jealous former mentor Davy and the tide of envy when he was elected to the Royal Society. The condescension as well of Davy's wife, Jane Apreece, of aristocratic upbringing who considered Faraday “low-class” and made him eat with the servants on their journeys. One could go on.

James Hamilton brings an interesting perspective in that he has mainly focused in art history in the past. He was drawn to Faraday since Faraday was one of those people who bucked the “two cultures” trend, which had not quite emerged at that time, that separated science and the humanities. He was active in art and literary circles and had friendships with many great artists in London at the time. Overall, this is a great book which I highly recommend. My main point of criticism as someone with a scientific background is that while Hamilton does a masterful job of painting Edwardian and Victorian society and Faraday's world, his focus on the scientific aspect of Faraday's work is reduced. At parts, you can read 100 pages about Faraday's social circle, Royal Society politics, and his family life without touching anything about his science. I think the scientific portions could have been fleshed out more, granted this may have made the book even longer and imposing and turned off a certain audience. Overall, it is a meticulous and well done work and I would recommend it to anyone doing science or interested in its history.

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2 Responses to Book Review: A Life of Discovery: Michael Faraday, Giant of the Scientific Revolution

  1. Reggie, thanks for this review of a book devoted to one of history’s greatest amateur scientists. Too bad it’s light on Faraday’s science, but I look forward to reading it and learning more about his personal life. Maybe this book will add something new to the story about how Faraday lost standing in his church for a few years after he accepted an invitation to see Queen Victoria when he was supposed to be attending church.
    I share your concern about the status of science fairs today. I still think of the science projects I do today as a continuation of those I did in school.

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