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Michael Faraday, Electricity and God. .

Faraday: The Life. James Hamilton. HarperCollins. [pounds sterling]25.00. 465 pages. ISBN 0-00- 257082-3.

On 3rd September 1821 Michael Faraday was at work in his basement laboratory at the Royal Institution in London's Albermarle Street. As a general rule, company was not welcome while he was about his experiments--except, that is, for children. Faraday shared their open-mindedness, their lightness of intellect, grace and innocence. So, as he tinkered with the rather ramshackle apparatus on his workbench, his fourteen year-old brother-in-law, George, looked on. What the boy witnessed was the very first flickerings of the electric motor--an invention which would change the world. Then, wiping his hands on a rag, the man who said of himself, 'My education was of the most a common day school' and whose work was to revolutionise the way we live, calmly took George to the circus.

Michael Faraday, born the son of a poor, sickly blacksmith, stood only a little over five feet but, writes James Hamilton in this engrossing book, his mother knew instinctively that her son had a special quality, 'some rare intelligence and intuition in him that she could not describe'. The family belonged to a small, stern, religious sect known as the Sandemanians. Mr Hamilton delights in relating how, while accompanying Sir Humphrey and Lady Davy on an eighteen month tour of Europe, the youthful Faraday was offered a bed at a French hotel in which the Pope had recently slept--'an event for which his religious training gave no particular guidance'. Anything less than complete adherence to the tenets of the Sandemanian Chapel was rigorously punished by 'exclusion' which both Faraday and his wife, Sarah, were to suffer briefly. Believing the natural world to be part of God's revealed truth, he dedicated himself to understanding 'the book of nature...written by the finger of God' and explaining it as clearly a s possible to his fellow human beings. For that reason, he never took out a patent. To Faraday, electricity, was the greatest manifestation of Divine Power on earth. That said, he would, nevertheless, experience profound crises of faith and his inability always to reconcile his scientific discoveries with his religious beliefs may well have been the root cause of his mental breakdown in later life.

Initially apprenticed to a bookbinder, Michael Faraday read every volume that he bound and was fired with enthusiasm by an article on 'Electricity' in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He attended public lectures given by Humphrey Davy at the Royal Institution and brought himself to the great man's notice when he sent Davy a personally bound copy of his extremely detailed lecture notes. Impressed, Davy offered the lad the position of laboratory assistant, a remarkable achievement for a self-educated boy. Thirty years later, Faraday would be able to list his professorships, membership of over fifty learned societies across the globe and his knighthood in the Prussian Order of Merit. His own charismatic lectures and the Friday Evening Discourses he initiated were, argues James Hamilton, 'the most influential, certainly the most enduring public education series until the founding of the BBC almost a century later'.

Faraday's emotions ran deep--'underneath his sweetness and gentleness was the heat of a volcano'--and while he was observed to be 'direct, incisive and businesslike' in his laboratory he was occasionally seduced by the visual beauty of the effects of his experiments and had been known to weep over a book in the privacy of his own home. In an age when the measure of a person's education is assessed by A-Level results, university degrees and certificates awarded by professional bodies, this account of how the untutored son of a poor blacksmith rose by his own thirst for knowledge to become one of the foremost scientists of his day is inspirational. Concluding his lectures, On the Chemical History of a Candle, Michael Faraday expressed the wish 'that you may in your generation, be fit to compare to a candle; that you may, like it, shine as lights to those about you; that, in all your actions you may justify the beauty of the taper by making your deeds honourable and effectual in the discharge of your duty to yo ur fellow man'. That just about sums up Michael Faraday himself.
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Title Annotation:Faraday: The Life
Author:Knight, John
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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