The Patron Saint of Public Science Outreach

I am very thankful that public science outreach by professional scientists is no longer a complete anathema. (There are some exceptions: it’s probably a bad idea to engage too much in that if you’re a non-tenured professor.) It’s no longer automatically assumed that reaching out to the public means you are “unserious” as a scientist.

Michael Faraday (1791-1867) was a physicist, chemist, and popularizer of science. He also sported truly excellent hair and sideburns.

Appropriately for this line of thought, English physicist and chemist Michael Faraday was born this day in 1791. Over the course of his busy life (he died in 1867, a month short of his 76th birthday) he made significant contributions to physics and chemistry, contributing to revolutions in thinking about electromagnetism. His experiments with induction — transforming electric and magnetic fields into each other — led directly to electric motors, generators, transformers, and other necessary pieces of our modern technology. The chemists (those scalawags) like to claim him as one of their own, by arguing that “physics” as it is understood now didn’t encompass electricity or magnetism yet. (OK, he did get his start working for the great chemist Sir Humphrey Davy. He also discovered several important chemical compounds such as benzene. Maybe they do have a bit of a point.)

Faraday is justly known as one of the great experimental physicists of the 19th century for his work showing that electrical currents are the same thing, however they are produced. (Benjamin Franklin’s famous kite experiment had shown earlier that lightning is electrical in nature.) He showed that electricity holds chemical compounds together, paving the way for our modern models of matter. However, from a theoretical physicist’s point of view, it was his concept of electric and magnetic fields (a term he coined) that really make his work stand out.

A field is a carrier of force that extends through space; it’s a way to understand how a compass rotates in the presence of a magnet, even though they aren’t touching. Instead of thinking of direct interaction across empty space, you think of a field emanating from an object (e.g. an electrically-charged particle like a proton), which then connects with other objects. Pictorially, the field is represented by lines of force; where the lines are dense, the force is strong, and where they are spread out, the force is weak. Faraday also postulated that the influence would take time to propagate through space, but he wasn’t able to predict how fast. It wasn’t until his younger colleague (and friend) James Clerk Maxwell put Faraday’s work into mathematical terms that the speed of electromagnetic interactions was found to be the speed of light, uniting electricity, magnetism, and light into a single theory.

To Faraday, the force fields were the fundamental things in the universe, while particles of matter were simply knots in the lines. In this way, he presaged quantum field theory, where everything is treated as a field of some sort. He would likely be hard-pressed to recognize the changes in the field concept since his day. For one thing, all fields are quantized: the electromagnetic force is represented by a particle — a photon — which is emitted and received by matter fields. To this physicist, however, quantum field theory seems to be in the spirit of Faraday, even if the way it is expressed is informed by the quantum revolution of the 1920s and ’30s.

One other major area where Faraday connects with us today was in his hugely popular lecture-demonstrations. He worked to bring advances in science to popular audiences, including children. He delivered 19 Christmastime lectures for children at the Royal Institution, including a famous one on the chemistry of candles — recently available in print again. He had no formal scientific training, so he took very seriously the idea that science should be accessible to everyone, not least since he had benefited from public lectures at the Royal Society himself. He was widely admired as a lecturer, with many people commenting on how excellent his delivery style was.

In this sense, and that he used his public stature as a popularizer of science to Do Good (for example on bringing public attention to water pollution in the Thames), I consider him to be the patron saint of those of us who write science for a popular audience. All of his great science was immediately shared not only with his colleagues, but with the public. He was science researcher and science journalist rolled into one, and for that I salute him.

Update: I originally wrote “Royal Society” when I intended “Royal Institution”. The Royal Society is an august group of researchers to which one must be elected as a Fellow; the Royal Institution (RI) is an independent body dedicated to research and public science outreach. Faraday was employed by the RI, and it was in his capacity as Professor of Chemistry that he performed his research and did his public lectures on science. Thanks to the commenter who caught the error!

3 responses to “The Patron Saint of Public Science Outreach”

  1. Faraday’s “The Chemical History of a Candle” is an amazing & lucid explanation of combustion. I first learned about it a few years ago in a nuclear industry workshop on fire risk modelling; it was described as everything you need to know about fire.

  2. “…not least since he had benefited from public lectures at the Royal Society himself.”

    Is that the Royal Society, or the Royal Institution? Easy to confuse them. The RI underwent a large renovation a couple of years ago, and perhaps it’s still going on. In the course of it they fixed up the very hall in which Faraday lectured; happening to hear of this when in London, I went to hear a talk there, humming “If I could I surely would / Sit in the hall where Faraday stood.”

    BTW, Albemarle street, just off Piccadilly in Mayfair, is said to be the world’s first one-way street. The crowds of carriages arriving there for lectures by Faraday and others made such congestion that the authorities resorted to this draconian course of action. Another of his achievements, not necessarily so popular as the others.

    1. You’re right: I even meant to type “Royal Institution”. Thanks for catching that!

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