Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1046:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1046.

Today, a look inside the mind of a surprising scientist. 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.

L. Pearce Williams tells about Michael Faraday, the learning-disabled, self-educated son of a blacksmith who set the foundations of electromagnetic theory a century and a half ago. And, among engineering subjects, what's more abstract than electricity!

We can't see electricity, and we experience it only at great peril. My own studies of heat flow are similar. However, our bodies are sensitive thermometers. We're intimate with heat flow in ways we cannot be intimate with electricity. It should be no surprise that the person who best helped us understand that subtle force was one of the more improbable scientists who ever lived.

Faraday was raised in an obscure fundamentalist sect called the Sandemanians. Its founder, Robert Sandeman, emerged out of the mid-18th-century revival movement. He preached that the existence of a designing God was evident in the intricacy and beauty of nature. And he insisted that the spirit of the New Testament should shape religious communities. The central act of a Sandemanian community was the agape, or love feast.

The fundamentalist Faraday felt no need to protect his evident God from the world. In one sense, Faraday absolutely separated his scientific work from his beliefs. In another sense, the two were one and the same. Faraday didn't have to recast facts to fit his creed, because the facts were God. In that he echoed Erasmus, who said, "All learning, sacred or profane, leads to God."

Faraday, gifted with astonishing spatial vision, was not easy to understand. As others struggled with his abstract, revolutionary ideas, he himself was oddly untouched by the controversy. Rightness or wrongness would come to light in time. Combat over scientific ideas simply wasn't part of Faraday's game. He wrote,

I perceive that my views are insufficient, and my judgment imperfect. ... I come to conclusions which, if partly right, are sure to be in part wrong. ... The same happens in judging the motives of others. [Though] in favourable cases I may see a good deal, I never see the whole.

Humility is a common enough scientific pose. But for this leading scientist, who held London spellbound with his public lectures and trafficked with royalty, humility was no pose. It was the humility of someone who saw life as an ongoing miracle. That the unschooled son of a worker was privileged to bear witness to all that was the greatest miracle of all.

Faraday could've been knighted. He could've been buried in Westminster Abbey. He chose none of that. He'd set the foundations of electric theory. He'd fathered the electric motor. He'd genuinely loved the people around him, and he'd savored the world he'd been given. Beyond that -- what could anyone need!

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Williams, L.P., Michael Faraday. New York: Basic Books, 1965.

For more on Faraday, see Episodes 741, 744, and 905.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode