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.