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

I like it when I’m surprised by the book contents, especially when it belies the title. Yes, it’s true that Michael Faraday and James Maxwell biographies are covered in Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon’s book ‘Faraday, Maxwell And The Electromagnetic Field’ but goes beyond this, covering several other notable scientists in the field. That’s shouldn’t be that surprising because in the 19th century the world was smaller and the number of establishments doing scientific experiments far less. In fact, if you didn’t belong to them, your progress as a scientist would have been somewhat stilted. Faraday was unique because he had to work his way into a position in the Royal Institute, working under Humphrey Davy making his own name in the process.


Scientists in those days were less specialised, certainly mixing physics and chemistry as they made their discoveries. Chief amongst these was realising the connection between magnets and electricity, which is something we now take pretty much for granted. The authors, through diagrams, show the development of their work and even if you aren’t scientifically apt, you can understand what is going on. Seeing how the trail and error developments were made will show you how much we owe to Michael Faraday as he pieced things together.

The one thing that held Faraday back was not being properly educated in mathematics. All his discoveries came from experimentation and some areas of it he couldn’t turn into formulas, which put him at odds with his peers when it came to recognising one of the properties of atoms and they didn’t see it. I did wonder if had he been educated like they were as to whether any of the dogma would have stuck so he didn’t recognise it himself. His successor, James Clerk Maxwell, who must surely have been the renaissance scientist of the time because he had his hands in everything even more so than Faraday, whom he took an interest in his work and then formulated the maths.

The authors going over Maxwell’s history shows that he didn’t start with electricity but with creating a colour wheel that ultimately became the technique or at least identifying the right colours and filter choices that you see on your television today and colour photography. There’s a slight change in the shades but the principles are all Maxwell’s. He also worked on molecule movement and how aromas are spread so quickly across a room. Later, Maxwell provided the solution for making the transatlantic cable capable of sending and receiving telegraph messages clearly. However, most important was adapting Newton’s Laws of Motion in terms of electrical forces which brought it full circle in showing that both applied and were part of the same laws. That’s a very important step in showing that nature works the same way for everything. Although I would still think someone would have realised this eventually, it is Maxwell who did it first. Calling him a genius would have been underrating him when you consider how much he did underlies our technology today. As Prometheus released the book ‘Magnificent Principia: Exploring Isaac Newton’s Masterpiece’, I hope they’ll consider doing a similar treatment for Maxwell’s ‘Treatise On Electricity And Magnetism’ to bring it to a wider audience today.

Maxwell died far too young from cancer but his work was carried on by Oliver Heaviside, who showed a similar attitude in wanting to understand and make electricity do more. The same could also be said for Heinrich Hertz.

If you want to be in awe of scientists as they found their way, then this book will certainly fulfil this need. Both writers make for easy reading, even with the science. If you can get your sprogs to read it, the added bonus is seeing what life was like back then as well so serves many purposes. A book that was a pleasure to read.

GF Willmetts

March 2014

(pub: Prometheus Books. 320 page illustrated indexed hardback. Price: $25.95 (US), $27.50 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-61614-942-0)

check out website: www.prometheusbooks.com

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