We’re once again visiting our ‘Heroes of Science’ series with a portrait of the great chemist and electrical scientist Michael Faraday. I wanted to delve back into this series (you can read the previous posts on Galileo and Marie Curie in our archives) while also touching on a topic that’s come to mind after the recent fall-out of the Brexit vote. In the flurry of news articles coming out after the vote last month, there has been a lot of material in regards to the impact on science. This material has also brought to attention the notion that scientists are seen as a group of elitist experts, out of touch with the common people.
As it turns out, that sentiment is not entirely misplaced: in the UK, only 15% of scientists come from a working-class family background, and there are lower rates of progression from bachelor’s to PhD-level studies for students in the UK who attend a state high school or come from a working-class family. In the US, an undergraduate from a working-class family is six times less likely to study at an elite university than their more privileged peers, and numerous cultural and financial difficulties will also stand in the way for those who want to break into professional science. But there are examples of students from working class families breaking through and becoming successful science, and one of them is the focus of this week’s Heroes of Science series: Michael Faraday.
Our coverage of Faraday’s life and is not meant to be an over-arching review but rather a glimpse into his life and why we consider him a hero of science. All our information comes from these websites and resources, and there’s plenty more about his life for those who are interested in delving deeper.
Faraday was born in 1791, his father was a blacksmith and his mother a former maidservant. He and his three brothers lived close to the poverty line, and Faraday was only able to attend school until he was 13 years old. After finishing a very basic level of education, Faraday got an apprenticeship as a book binder in a bookshop. During his 7 years at the shop, he made a meager salary but was able to pass his time reading the books that he bound. He greatly enjoyed science books, especially chemistry and electricity, and found himself coming back time and time again to the Encyclopedia Britannia as well as Conversations on Chemistry, the latter of which was a 600 page book about chemistry written for non-scientists. Even though he had a small salary, his interest in science led him to spending part of his wages on chemistry lab equipment so he could verify first-hand what the books were describing.
Towards the end of his time as a bookbinding apprentice, Faraday attended a lecture on chemistry at the Royal Institution, thanks in no small part to his blacksmith brother who gave him a schilling so he could attend the lecture. Faraday was enthralled by the lectures, and thanks to a friendly bookshop patron, the musician William Dance, Faraday was able to get tickets to see more lectures from other famous English chemists at the Royal Institution and the Royal Society. One of the lectures that most impressed Faraday was by Sir Humphry Davy, a Cornish chemist who Faraday was able to watch perform some experiments at his lecture first-hand. To show his appreciation for Davy’s work, Faraday collected notes from the lecture in a 300-page bound book and sent it to Davy as a gift. Davy was impressed by the thorough note-taking and after a lab accident that made it difficult for Davy to write, he offered to bring Faraday to the Royal Institution as his personal note-taker. Another turn of events ended with Faraday gaining a job as a lab assistant, when one technician was fired due to misconduct which had caused a separate accident. In 1813 and at the age of 21, Faraday found himself working at the very place that he had saved up his schillings just to visit.
But while Faraday was enthusiastic about his work, he was made to feel set apart due to his lower background as a blacksmith’s son. While touring the continent with Davy soon after being hired, Davy was not treated as an equal in the group. Davy’s wife made Faraday travel outside the main coach and eat with the servants. He thought about quitting science as he went through this two-year tour of misery and mistreatment, but thanks to his time spent around science and getting new ideas from the scientists he met, he decided to persevere.
Faraday’s achievements in the lab are numerous: in chemistry, he is credited with discovering benzene and working on a better understanding of the properties of chlorine and carbon. Through his early work on gas diffusion, he discovered that some gases were able to be liquefied in the lab, including chlorine. He even invented an early form of the Bunsen burner, a piece of equipment you’ll see in labs to this day as a safe tool for having benchtop heat and flame. Faraday was even considered an early founder of the concept of nanomaterials, after seeing that gold colloids had vastly different properties when compared to their bulk metal material. As nanoscience is a driving force in modern chemistry and toxicology to this day, Faraday has shown himself to be a truly enterprising and forward-thinking scientist.
Faraday is better known for his work on electricity and magnetism. In 1820, Danish scientist Oersted discovered electromagnetism, demonstrating that the intrinsic energy underlying both electricity and magnetism is two sides of the same coin. Faraday was able to construct devices to perform induction, which is the transfer electromagnetic energy from one object to another. With induction, you can apply an electric current and create a magnetic field and likewise create an electric current by moving a conductor through a magnetic field. He was able to create steady-state currents and even designed the first-ever generator. His work formed the basis of studies on electromagnetic fields in physics for years to come, and his early designs are still on display at the Royal Institution. Faraday was also involved in work which linked the concepts in chemistry and electricity together, and is credited with discovering the laws of electrolysis as well as popularizing terms like electrode and ion.
But Faraday wasn’t content on keeping his work to himself: he was also a fervent scientific communicator. At the age of 24 he gave his first lecture and published his first academic paper. While living and working at the Royal Institution, he was elected to the Royal Society at the young age of 32 and became a Fullerian Professor of Chemistry at the age of 41. He was known as one of the best lecturers of his time and was especially known for his Christmas lectures, a forum for public presentations on science. He described the method giving a lecture as the following: "A flame should be lighted at the commencement and kept alive with unremitting splendour to the end." Faraday greatly enjoyed doing these lectures, complete with lab demonstrations, and considered it a vital part of the work of a scientist to educate the public. He was also a strong advocate against pseudo-science and gave lectures to promote the importance of public education. Outside of his time as a scientist and lecturer, Faraday also collaborated on projects with the British government, including coal mine investigations, constructing light houses, and protecting ships from corrosion. He was even involved in early work on environmental pollution prevention. He did all of this without any formal education, apart from his honorary doctorate from Oxford.
So what can we take from Faraday’s story? Despite coming from a modest background, Faraday let his passions lead him, both in the effort he spent in learning on his own and in taking ideas and concepts in new, uncharted directions. He ended up with his career thanks to a good deal of hard work and study, as well as a bit of luck and help from friends and family. Even when meeting with adversity in how he was treated as a lower-class member of society, he kept persevering and stayed focused on the science that was important to him. He was also a great science communicator and believed heartily in teaching science to everyone, always remembering where he came from and the importance of science lectures in his own adolescence. He will certainly continue to be remembered as one of the great scientists of the 19th century.
But Faraday’s story is potentially a unique one, and it’s not very easy to find similar stories in the realm of modern science. Is science doomed to be a primarily elitist organization, or is there a way to bring other working class students into the fold? While current legislation in the UK and the US is working to develop federal programs to bridge the gap between undergraduate and PhD-level studies for students of working class families, students outside of the ‘normal’ elite groups do have certain advantages:
“The most powerful advantage for students from working-class backgrounds is the resilience and “enormous fortitude” they have already demonstrated in getting where they are." (Quote from 'Breaking the Class Ceiling')
Faraday is certainly a testament to this, and through his inspiring story we hope to see more similarly-minded students break through their current place in the world in order to make their mark on the scientific community.
Our first entry in the ‘Heroes of Science’ series was about Galileo, whose life and work I had been interested in for a while. The next post in the series will focus on someone whose fame is well-known, but whose life and work I didn’t know much about until this week. Even at the completion of International Women’s day last week, there is still a lot of discussion within science and engineering about getting women more involved and how to keep them in research positions. In the midst of hearing about the challenges women face in today’s research environment, I thought back on what the challenges might have looked like over a hundred years ago, when the number of women scientists was far fewer than now, and pondered what it meant to be one of the best scientists (not just one of the best women scientists but one of the best scientists, period) to emerge from that time.
*Disclaimer: As with our previous Heroes of Science post, this post is by no means an exhaustive biography, but is meant only as an overview of Marie Curie's life as a scientist and why she can be considered a Hero of Science. The information presented here comes from our favorite source of fun facts, and there are lots of other resources if you are interested in reading more about Marie Curie.
Even if you don’t know her history, you’ve seen Marie Curie’s name everywhere. Her name (as well as her husband’s) can be found on metro stations, airplanes, research institutions, fellowships, hospitals, and the list goes on and on. But before she was Marie Curie, she was Maria Salomea Skłodowska, born in Warsaw in 1867. Maria was part of a family of teachers who had an enthusiasm for science, but unfortunately who had also lost property and status in Russian-occupied Poland while she was growing up. Her father taught math and physics, and when his school had to stop doing lab experiments by order of the Russian government, he brought his chemistry lab equipment home instead.
Maria attended boarding school but found herself unable to enroll at a university in Poland because of to her status as a woman. She became involved with Poland’s ‘Flying University’, an underground nationalistic Polish university, but her older sister inspired her to earn enough money working as a governess in order to move to Paris and study there. It took a year and a half of work for Maria to make enough money to join her sister in Paris, meanwhile taking the initiative to educate herself with books and self-tutoring in her spare time.
Maria moved to Paris (and thus became Marie) while she was in her mid-20s and enrolled at the University of Paris to study physics, chemistry, and math. She spent her nights tutoring so she could earn money while studying and in 1893 got her degree in physics and soon started work at an industrial lab. She then earned her second degree and soon afterwards met Pierre Curie, who was an instructor in the school of physics and chemistry. Marie was looking for a bigger lab to work and was introduced by a colleague to Pierre. Pierre himself didn’t have a lab of his own, but he did help find a place for Marie. Their mutual love of chemistry and curiosity about the natural world led to a deeper friendship, and Pierre proposed to Marie. She turned him down, as at that time still intent on moving back to Poland. After going back to Poland to visit family, she soon realized that her dream wasn’t achievable: she was denied a place at Jagiellonian University in Krakow because of her status as a woman. Pierre sent her a letter asking her to come back to Paris to work on her Ph.D. and to marry him, and this time she obliged.
For her PhD thesis, Marie decided to study uranium rays, thanks to inspiration from recent discoveries about x-rays and uranium. Using an electrometer similar to the one from her father’s old lab equipment, she was able to determine that the amount of radiation from the uranium was proportional to the quantity of the material, so she hypothesized that the rays weren’t from chemical interactions but solely from the atoms themselves. This was a groundbreaking way of thinking about atoms and was just the start of the groundbreaking discoveries that would lead her to two Nobel prizes. During her dissertation work, she had her first daughter and worked as an instructor at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS). The school didn’t have a lab, so she did her work in a converted shed next to the chemistry department. Her school also didn’t sponsor her research, so she worked to get subsidies from mining companies and governments who were interested in her work. She soon became entrenched in a systematic search for substances that could emit radiation, and also inspired Pierre to join in her endeavors.
Pierre and Marie worked together and wrote numerous papers as they worked to discover the element that was responsible for higher activities than others. Through their work they discovered the element Radium and also coined the phrase ‘radioactivity’. They published 32 scientific papers in the time span of 4 years, including a ground-breaking medical paper demonstrating that exposure to radium destroyed tumor cells faster than healthier ones. In 1900, she became the first woman faculty member at ENS and later received her doctorate in 1903. She was invited to the Royal Institute in London to present her dissertation work, but due to her status as a woman Pierre had to speak on her behalf.
Thankfully, Marie wasn’t denied a Nobel prize due to being a woman, although it did almost happen that way. In 1903 she shared the prize with her husband and Henri Becquerel for their work on radiation. The award was almost only given to Pierre and Henri, but one member of the Nobel committee was an advocate for women scientists and made sure that she was on the list, too. Pierre and Marie used their prize money to fund their lab and to continue their great work. Unfortunately, in 1906 Marie had to continue their incredible work on her own after Pierre died in an accident. Marie was left devastated but still determined to keep working. Before his death, Pierre was ready to accept a new position as Chair of Physics at the University of Paris, a position which the university instead offered to Marie. She took up the role and was determined to use her work and her lab as a tribute to her husband.
While her work continued to flourish with the establishment of the Radium Institute, the successful isolation of radium in 1910, and working to define international standards for radioactive emissions, she still faced adversity. Marie was never admitted to the French Academy of Sciences, in part due to her status as a woman but also from strong xenophobic tensions, which also led to France occasionally shedding a poor light on her great work when receiving national awards. Despite both professional and personal adversity, her work was always on point, and she received a second Nobel prize, this time in Chemistry, in 1911—and to this day she is one of only two people to win Nobel prizes in two different fields.
At the start of World War I, she worked on developing equipment to help battlefield surgeons, and was the first director of the Red Cross radiology department. Wanting to give everything she had to the allies’ cause, she even offered up her Nobel prizes to support the war effort. While her direct efforts to support soldiers and doctors on the front lines was at the time left relatively unrecognized by the French government, she continued to be a leader both in wartimes and as the leader of an institute which churned out four more Nobel prize winners, including her own daughter.
While there are numerous legacies that Marie Curie left behind from her work, what stands out to me is her perseverance as a scientist. She was described as honest and modest, which seems to hold true when you see how she always invested prize money into her and Pierre’s work and worked to build others up in their institute instead of keeping it all for herself. She refrained from patenting her radium-labelling isotopes so that other scientists could more easily do the research they needed to. She also worked in a world that continually told her no, simply because she was a woman. The fact that she continued her research, which was both ground-breaking and Nobel prize-winning work, is proof of her dedication to her role in science and not to society’s expected role for her in the world.
Marie Curie wasn’t just amazing because she was the first woman to do so many things in science, but because she provides an example for all of us, man and woman alike, of how we can let our passions and our curiosities drive us instead of letting ourselves be limited by the expectations of the world around us. She goes to show all of us that where you end up isn’t determined by what gender or economical status you’re born into, it’s instead driven by your ambitions and your goals, and the dreams of what you want to achieve, learn, or accomplish. Marie and Pierre also illustrate a great relationship in science—having someone that is your teammate and collaborator, and a person that inspires you to do your best and that helps you accomplish amazing things. Whether it’s your life partner or your science best friend, being in an inspiring and supporting relationship can make all the difference in helping you succeed.
I have never been a very outspoken feminist, especially in the context of women in science, but I was really inspired by Marie’s story and the energy she put into working towards a goal, regardless of the obstacles in her way. Despite the challenges that women and other under-represented groups face in the sciences today, the world looks quite different than it did 100 years ago thanks to the pioneering efforts of early women in science. My PhD advisor told me about her days as a Masters student, when she would have lunch with the only other female in the graduate department. I see both her and Marie Curie not as pioneers for women in science but really as pioneers, period: people that go into a place that’s new and unfamiliar and that let themselves and their work shine, regardless of gender, nationality, or any other status. Maybe that’s why science is such a great place for everyone that works there, because it’s the merit of the work that’s the focus, not the person who does it.
If you have another scientist in mind that you’d like to see featured in our Heroes of Science series, email your suggestion to science.with.style.blog[at]gmail.com and we’d be happy to feature it in an upcoming post. Until then, we hope you have an enjoyable Easter holiday—whether you get time off from the lab or just enjoy some spare time while eating your weight in chocolate eggs!
You could easily fill up an entire blog talking about all the lives of the great scientists, the pioneers, the giants’ shoulders who we stand on (so to speak). A hero of science isn’t necessarily the smartest, the most well-funded, or the one with the most papers: a hero of science is someone who has recognized the value of the scientific method as a way towards reaching the truth about how the universe works, and not letting any adversity or barrier stand in the way of making that truth known. With this ‘Heroes of Science’ post series, I want to highlight both my own personal heroes of science as well as scientists that stand out for their contributions to the realm of science and to how we navigate through our own careers as professional scientists.
I was partially inspired for this post series by a recent Science Friday podcast featuring a 1996 interview with the great science communicator Carl Sagan. During his life, Carl Sagan was a proponent of the scientific method and had a great passion for sharing science with everyone. After listening to the podcast and remembering how much I loved reading Contact, I started off on ‘Demon-Haunted World.’ I was surprised to hear in the introduction that two of Carl Sagan’s heroes on his path towards a career in science were his own parents, both of whom were not professional scientists or even had a strong inclination for science. In the book Sagan mentions his parents as a source of fascination balanced with skepticism about the world. He touts this balance as a crucial part of life for any career scientist: to be continually interested in learning more, yet cautious when it approaches. Reflecting on his words—with more on his discussion of the dangers of a world full of pseudoscience featured in next week’s post—led me to think about my own scientific heroes. I can’t help but think back a long, long time ago to a 16th century Italian astronomer and physicist, called the “father of science”, and a man who stood up for his views on the place of the world within the universe: Galileo Galilei.
As a disclaimer, this post is by no means an exhaustive biography of the Life and Times of Galileo Galilei, but is meant only as an overview of his life as a scientist and why I feel he is a Hero of Science. The information on his life is based on everyone’s favorite source of fun facts, and certainly there are better sources than this blog if you are interested in learning more about Galileo.
But before jumping off to Galileo, let’s set the scene with another scientific giant: Copernicus. In 1543, just shortly before he died at the ripe old age of 70, the Polish astronomer and mathematician published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), a very technical publication using mathematical functions to provide an alternate universal model: one in which the earth revolved around the sun, and not vice versa. With the completion of his seminal work and the first such mention of a heliocentric theory, Copernicus passed away, and unfortunately the immediate impact of his work passed just as quickly. The book was never formally banned but it was removed from circulation soon after initial publication, with a low initial demand due to its technical nature and described as ‘mathematical fiction with no physical reality’.
Jump forward just three years later to 1546, when Galileo Galilei is born and named after his ancestor who was a physician and university professor (no pressure, of course). Galileo went to school to become a physician (OK, maybe there was a little bit of pressure) but he soon realized he had a much deeper fascination for things outside of medicine, concerning questions like ‘why do things move the way they do?’ Galileo asked his father to change to natural philosophy and math, and was given permission (despite the fact that Galileo must have forgotten that doctors earned more money). Galileo soon excelled in a new program, with his skills in applied science, mathematics, and enough of an artistic background to also be an expert of design.
During his scientific career, he taught at the University of Pisa and the University of Padua, penned twelve books, and made numerous discoveries and tools, including the refracting telescope which to this day is still referred to as the Galilean telescope. His efforts were focused on observation, experimentation, and bringing in mathematics to better understanding natural laws. With his new telescope he was able to write the first treatise of observational astronomy, including observing the moons of Jupiter, the roughness of the moon, the Milky Way, and even sunspots. Through his observations he also worked on promoting the Copernican theory of the universe, but was unable to prove the theory at first. He went through theories on tides and comets, but realized that these ideas didn’t fully support the theory of heliocentrism. Nonetheless, he continued to search for scientific and mathematical means to support his claim.
After Copernicus had died, his heliocentric theory was not overly controversial, mainly because the available data, the lack of stellar parallax, did not support it. A parallax is the phenomenon that occurs when you perceive a shift in the position of a faraway object depending on where you are: try looking at a picture on the far side of the room while closing just your left eye, then closing just your right. Similarly, if the earth revolved around the sun, then there should be observable shift in a star’s location every six months (beyond the changes corresponding with the seasons). The lack of this shift was evidence to many in the 1600’s that the heliocentric theory was invalid, even though Copernicus had argued that the distance was so large that the parallax would be negligible to the naked eye (and it wasn’t until the 19th century that there was even good enough instrumentation to detect it at all).
However, the controversy with the heliocentric theory was more than just where the sun and the earth sat with respect to one another: it was about respect for Papal authority. This was seen as especially crucial in Italy, who had just witnessed the effects of the Counter Reformation after the Protestant uprisings against the Catholic church in the early 1500’s. The heliocentric model was attacked by the Papacy using biblical references which were vague at best, including Psalm 96:10 (King James Version) ‘Say among the heathen that the Lord reigneth: the world also shall be established that it shall not be moved: he shall judge the people righteously.’ Galileo argued that heliocentrism was not in contrast to the bible in his letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, and he was soon called to Rome by the Inquisition for his Protestant-like threats to ‘reinterpret’ the Bible. He was ordered by the Inquisition to abandon the idea, with works by Copernicus and other authors banned until they could be re-written by the Catholic church.
Soon after Galileo’s papal hand slap, there was a new pope elected, Urban VIII (one who happened to be a friend and fan of Galileo and who had opposed his condemnation) and Galileo chose to stay out of spotlight. While the papacy might have thought him tamed, he instead spent a considerable amount of time building up his arguments on heliocentrism. After nearly twenty years of work and staying away from controversial letters and treatises, he emerged from the shadows and published “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” his seminal work on the heliocentric theory. He had received formal permission and authorization from the Inquisition and Pope Urban VIII, who had previously requested Galileo to give arguments for both the heliocentric and the geocentric (also called Ptolemaic) theories and to include Urban VIII’s personal views within the book. Galileo did so, although in a way to be sure as not to make either the Inquisition or Urban VIII very happy with the result.
Galileo’s Dialogue is set up as a debate, with the players being a Copernican supporter Salviati (named after a friend of Galileo), who voices many of Galileo’s opinions directly and who is referred to as the ‘Academician’ in Dialogue. Dialogue also features an initially neutral but intelligent man named Sagredo (another friend of Galileo) who offers additional comments and direction throughout the discussion. The last character is Simplicio, who holds to the ways of Ptolemy and also voices the direct opinions of Pope Urban VIII. In addition to putting the words of Urban VIII into the mouth of a simpleton (the connotation of Simplicio from Italian), anyone reading Dialogue sees the clear victor in the discussions being Salviati, and with the book being apparent to any reader not an evenly-balanced dialogue but a direct attack on geocentrism. While Galileo’s arguments on the heliocentric theory using tides as an example were not correct, Galileo’s book did touch on a number of other scientific topics and was clearly directed at Rome and her challenges made against science.
Galileo was called to Rome to defend himself in 1632 immediately after the publication of Dialogue, where he was forced to admit that he had held onto his Copernican beliefs after his last trial, despite being told to do otherwise. He was found ‘vehemently suspect of heresy’ and was sentenced to imprisonment and to ‘abjure, cure, and detest’ his opinions on the matter. He remained under house arrest for the rest of his life until 1642, and his Dialogue was banned. While there is much doubt of him uttering the infamous words ‘and yet it moves’ while being forced to recant his theory during the trial, the urban legend brings to life the power of his story and defiance of papal law. During his imprisonment he was forced to read seven penitential psalms per week, while in his spare time writing summaries of his work which were published in Holland to avoid censorship and are credited as the foundation of modern physics.
While his most controversial arguments on heliocentrism were not founded on observation, he still had numerous contributions to the field of science before his death: work on the science of motion, the mathematical laws of nature, and his support for a separation of science from philosophy and religion, which was a new and turbulent idea in his time. He was also willing to change mind in accordance with observations, understanding that information was crucial to bringing an idea to life. Perhaps that’s why he worked so tirelessly to the tides theory, and a shame that only technology more than 200 years after his time could prove him right. He was also a lover of design and of function, and left behind many practical and beautiful engineering works such as his refracting telescope.
Perhaps the reason Galileo first came to mind for me, however, is his relentless search for the truth even in the face of adversity. His quest was for knowledge and for scientific truth, and this is what should drive us as scientists. But all too often we are driven by other pressures: for funding, for acceptance of ideas, for pleasing our outside collaborators or PIs. What should drive us is the search for answers to questions, regardless of what those answers are, whether they are what we thought they would be when we first set out. Being a hero of science means adapting your mind and your ideas to what you see, not in adapting what you see to your mind and your ideas.
To this day, Galileo is still called the Father of Modern Science by more modern scientific greats such as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. And while the Catholic church may have negated his works at first, his legacy stands in a more positive light. In 1939, Pope Pius XII made his first speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and described Galileo as being among the "most audacious heroes of research... not afraid of the stumbling blocks and the risks on the way…" While we probably won't all become future pioneers of modern science as Galileo was, we all have the opportunity to be ‘audacious heroes’ in our own worlds, to stand up and work towards truth, and to meet the challenges as they come with fervor and with courage.
I hope you have enjoyed the start of our Heroes of Science series. If you have a hero, be he or she modern, ancient, or anywhere in between, send your suggestion and a rationale for you choice to our gmail address or leave a message in the blog post. We look forward to sharing more heroic stories in future posts!