Book review: The Electric Life of Michael Faraday (Alan Hirshfeld 2006)

Rating: 5/5

Michael Faraday is the man who showed that light, electricity, and magnetism were interconnected forces. The farad is named after him; you know a scientist is important when they’ve got their own unit. He had no formal math training or university education. He made his discoveries through dogged experimentation, humility, and curiosity. And because he was the son of a blacksmith, he almost didn’t even get the chance.

The Electric Life of Michael Faraday is an excellent professional biography of Faraday*. Hirshfeld, a physicist, details Faraday’s motivations in addition to his discoveries. We learn about the books, people and thoughts that motivated Faraday. We see how Faraday coped with the endless failures that precede an experimental success. We also see how Faraday fought for his ideas against the incorrect prevailing notions of the day. We get all this in a compact and readable 200 pages. (The Cosmos episode “The Electric Boy”, covers many of the facts of Faraday’s life, though less of the motivation, and is and excellent companion to this book. And it’s free to stream on Netflix!)

The way we are taught science as children is so different from the way science comes into being. For example, the power of the electron was harnessed well before it was discovered in 1897. Volta invented the battery in 1800; the dynamo, which converted mechanical energy into electricity, was built in 1832. Scientists like Humphry Davy isolated and named elements decades and centuries before we had any idea what made elements different. When a scientist does science today, they also have incomplete information. We learn science as a set of facts and rules, rather than the procedures for learning those facts and rules. The Electric Life excellently illustrates the difference. This book, accompanied with some simple experiments and videos, could make a rich and beautiful teaching example.

Hirshfeld also touches on a social issue that’s as relevant today as it was in Faraday’s time: scientific literacy. Speaking about the Victorian pseudoscience of table-moving, Faraday said

I do not object to table-moving itself… though a very unpromising subject for experiment; but I am opposed to the unwillingness of its advocates to investigate; their boldness to assert; the credulity of the lookers-on; their desire that the reserved and cautious objector should be in error; and I wish, by calling attention to these things, to make the general want of mental discipline and education manifest.

In Faraday’s day, there was no science education. Today, I would argue that while we teach scientific fact, we still don’t teach enough scientific reasoning. The above statement could apply to vaccines, global warming, GMOs, evolution, among others.

I would have liked to learn more about Faraday’s personal life. We learn almost nothing about Faraday’s wife Sarah, or anyone else in his family, or whether he even had children (he didn’t). But again, the book is short, and does such a good job with its chosen issues that this is more of an observation than a criticism.

I whole heartedly recommend this book to anyone, scientist or not. You’ll learn about an interesting man of history. You’ll learn how science happens now and two centuries ago. And I think you’ll simply enjoy it.

* I should note that my copy was an advance reading copy from a used book store, so it may vary from the final book in small details.

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