Today, James Clerk Maxwell finds out what Michael
Faraday had seen. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Maxwell set the theoretical
foundations of electric field theory in 1873. He
says at the outset of his treatise, "Before I began
the study of electricity I resolved to read no
mathematics on the subject until I had first read
That's an innocent enough remark until you follow
it through. You see, Faraday's pioneering work had
made little sense to mathematicians. So Maxwell, a
great mathematician himself, systematically went
back and climbed inside Faraday' s head. There he
found a great garden of delights. Here's what he
said about the experience:
I found that ... Faraday's methods ... begin
with the whole and arrive at the parts by analysis,
while the ordinary mathematical methods were
founded on the principle of beginning with the
parts and building up the whole by synthesis.
Faraday and Maxwell were two of the brightest
people of the 19th century. Faraday was virtually
uneducated, but he had an ace up his sleeve. Thomas
West, who writes on dyslexia, points out that
Faraday showed a full set of typical symptoms. He
had terrible trouble with spelling and punctuation.
His memory played tricks on him. He couldn't handle
He had one more typical dyslexic trait: a powerful
visual sense. He forged a finished image in his
mind's eye, then he broke that image down into
parts that people could understand. Maxwell tells
us that Faraday built a mental picture of lines of
force, filling space, shaping themselves into
Nothing about Michael Faraday's life matched our
aggressive images of Victorian science. He belonged
to an obscure and very gentle religious sect.
Science was pleasure and it was worship. He was
plain-spoken, but he electrified audiences with a
simple passion for what he was doing.
Faraday drives his biographers crazy with the
seeming irrationality of his thought processes. How
can you start with the finished skyscraper, then
build the foundation below it?
Now I run my eye over Maxwell's book on field
theory. He converted Faraday's vision of force
fields into mathematical language. Then he plotted
the equations. They form wild graceful spider webs.
And we see at last what Faraday had seen first.
I talk with parents of dyslexic children. I see the
crease of worry -- of fear. I tell them, your child
is blessed with an edge that other children don't
have. Maybe it's Faraday's holistic vision. Maybe
it's verbal retention. But it's there, and it's
something the rest of us don't have.
Remember, it finally took Maxwell to translate
Faraday's second sight. Only when he did could it
display its lovely surrealistic graphical form so
the rest of us could see it, as well.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds