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