Faraday, Maxwell And The Electromagnetic Field by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon (book review)

November 28, 2017 | By | Reply More

The story of Michael Faraday is really a literal rags to riches story as he worked his way into the scientific community by endearing himself to Humphrey Davy with his meticulous handwriting and noting experiments at the latter’s public displays. Faraday was also a keen experimenter himself although not originally on such a vast scale when he created his first battery depending on a few coins and some zinc to create a charge. When you compare this to the two thousand cells that Davy was using, it was all a matter of scale. What was a lot harder was moving up through the social classes. Davy himself came from a slightly more middle class background but married his way up and took Faraday with him on the Grand Tour of Europe and, although he had to act as valet when the original servant backed out, Davy ensured he met the right people and extolled his knowledge.

The authors, Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon, did raise some curiosity as to why the French customs people didn’t have any problems with Davy’s scientific equipment. What they forget that this was the 18th century and they were more concerned with contraband. There was also the little matter of unrest between England and France at the time of Napoleon’s reign and were more concerned with firearms.

The same also applies to Italy. Although the information is in these chapters, they don’t make the link that the reason there were few scientific advancements since the Roman Empire days can also be attributed to the Catholic Church and where scientists were routinely burnt at the stake for blasphemy. That would put the dampener on most scientific investigation until certain breakthroughs through astronomy.

It’s hardly surprising that Faraday with his experiments and discoveries in electricity and magnetism, let alone combining them together, made him a scientist in demand and hardly surprising he suffered nervous exhaustion a number of times from overworking. It’s pointed out several times about his lacking in mathematics but you do have to wonder if he’d have been so successful had he being trained adequately in it.

For those of you who watch the Royal Institute Christmas lectures in the UK, Michael Faraday was the instigator where lectures were always carried on a Friday night.

Working out what was Faraday’s most significant discovery is a lot harder. The authors don’t hold back explaining the principles that he made so this book doubles as a science book. Picking out his most significant discovery, I think it has to be his realisation of the electric motor and that came largely from observation that the magnet moved when electric flow was turned on and off. What we take for granted now was all new at the time.

The second half of the book covers James Clerk Maxwell’s life which overlapped Faraday a few years before his death. Oddly, Maxell’s first achievement was in understanding colour and how the mix of the three primary colours gave all the variety of colours that we perceive. He went on to work on the electromagnetic theory where Faraday left off and make sense of it all. He formulated eleven equations which the later scientist Oliver Heaviside reduced then to eight equations and gets a chapter to himself at the end of the book.

Although I’ve focused more on Faraday than Maxwell here, it’s mostly because I had little to add to what is covered. I should point out that you get a lot of insight in the time period and how much innovation they gave to science. The last chapter gives remarks from 20th century scientists and even Einstein saw them as giants that he couldn’t have done his work without them. When you consider how much we rely on electricity today, it would have been nothing without these two scientists. If you want to know more about them and their work then this book should be on your reading list.

GF Willmetts

November 2017

(pub: Prometheus Books, 2014. 320 page illustrated indexed hardback. Price: $25.95 (US), $25.50 (CAN), £25.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-61614-942-0)

check out website: www.prometheusbooks.com

Category: Books, Science


About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 15 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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