History has many paradoxes but one that I feel is the most ironic and fitting is that the ‘Great Men of Science’ such as Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, and Albert Einstein have all been religious men as well as scientists. Science and religion have never been on the best of terms with one another in that inquisitions were launched against scientists who dared make sense of the world and advancements were shunned unless they were first approved by the Vatican.
Here I’ll take a look at one of the aforementioned figures; Michael Faraday.
Who was Michael Faraday? What did he do? What did he discover and why is he relevant?
Michael Faraday (1791 – 1867) was a ‘natural philosopher’ (the term ‘scientist’ did not become mainstream until the mid nineteenth century) who lived in Victorian England. Faraday is responsible for the discovery of the Electromagnetic Field and is widely considered one of the ‘Great Men of Science’. In many ways Faraday was a self-made man, rising from humble origins to immense notoriety but at the same time shunning the fortune and fame which came with his work. As you can probably discern from my introduction you won’t be surprised to learn that Faraday, in addition to his love of science, was a religious man and a member of the Sademanian Church. By his own admission and unwittingly foreshadowing a famous line from Albert Einstin Faraday claimed that he was not an overly bright scientist but rather had an over-active imagination, which he felt was more important.
Faraday’s story begins at the age of 13 when he accepted an apprenticeship to a book-binder called George Riebau. Faraday was more-0r-less forced into this trade by his parents who likewise held trading professions and whom were both firmly rooted to the bottom of Britain’s rigid social pyramid. It was during his first employment as a book-binder that Faraday began to notice the works of scientists such as Jane Marcel and Isaac Watts. Rather than divert the attention of his apprentice away from science Riebau instead encouraged Faraday to attend public lectures at the City Philosophical Society and envelop himself in his interests. Faraday soon decided that he wanted to pursue a career in science, however he lacked any formal education and would therefore need to find other ways to ‘break the ice’. Although he lacked university education Faraday did have motivation and ambition, fueled by his admiration for a contemporary prominent scientist who came from a lower class background like himself: Humphry Davy (1778 – 1829).
Faraday had first met Humphry Davy during one of the lectures that Riebau had provided him with tickets to attend. Davy was a professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution, which is to this day one of London’s most prestigious scientific establishments. It was not just Davy’s work that inspired Faraday but also his origins. Davy, like Faraday would eventually emulate, had risen from a lower class background with very little education to become one of the most admired scientists amongst London’s elite. Knowing that any early career moves would be reliant on patronage and nepotism Faraday appealed to Davy by neatly compiling all of the notes that he had taken during his lectures and presenting them to him. Impressed, Davy invited Faraday to his laboratory for an interview but felt that he was still unready for the world of science. Still, Davy promised to Faraday that he would keep him in mind if he ever changed his mind and suggested that he keep with book-binding for the time being. Davy’s mind was made up for him shortly after that meeting when he was partially blinded by a laboratory explosion, he contacted Faraday and offered to take him under his wing as his assistant. His duties in this role included preparing and assisting in experiments as well as partaking in lecture demonstrations. Faraday also accompanied Davy around Europe in 1812 (Faraday was 21 at the time) when the latter was invited on a continental lecture tour around Europe.
Upon their return to England in 1815 Faraday resumed his usual duties, this time working for William Brande since Davy had decided to retire upon their return. Regardless, Faraday was starting to make a name for himself in the halls of the Royal Institution as he began getting his own articles published in the Quarterly Journal of Science. His rise to notoriety within academic circles continued in 1821 when he was appointed the ‘Acting Superintendant’ of the Royal Institution, responsible for the day-to-day running of the house and its’ servants. Later in the same year he married his long-standing love Sarah Barnard and became a fully recognized member of the Sandemanian Church. In the fall of the same year Faraday finally had his major breakthrough when he discovered the Electromagnetic Field. The previous year (1820) a Danish philosopher called Hans Ortsted had discovered that a compass needle moved when it was placed near a wire carrying an electric current, this was a development that attracted massive interest in the European scientific community. Curiosity once again got the better of Faraday and in the winter of 1821 he opted to build upon Ortsted’s discovery and setup an experiment which produced a tectonic result. He placed an electrified wire near a suspended magnet but instead of the magnet being neither repelled or attracted to the wire it instead began to circle around it. This new force would eventually lead to the invention of the electric motor. This groundbreaking discovery resulting in the first ‘serious’ public attention being paid to Faraday and got him elected as a member of the Paris Academie Des Sciences in 1822. Then, in 1824 the moment Faraday had dreamed of finally arrived: He was elected as an official member of the Royal Society, and was appointed as Director of the Laboratory in the Royal Institution in 1825.
Despite taking on all of these new duties Faraday was not done with his experiments and in 1831 he made another earth-shattering discovery: Induction. His hypothesis was that a wire with a strong enough current would ‘Bleed Out’ an electromagnetic field and would ‘Introduce’ another current to a nearby dormant wire. His hypothesis turned out to be correct.
There was a public mood in the nineteenth century that harnessing the power of nature through science and technology would lead to the advancement of society and since the Royal Institution was England’s sole public research laboratory Faraday’s rise to fame was arguably inevitable. However, what really cemented his popularity within all levels of society was that Faraday’s religious beliefs compelled him to decline excessive wealth and demanded a level of humility from him. This lack of interest in public standing and lack of interest in climbing the social ladder is what arguably endeared him to the wider public the most. He truly fit the bill of the Victorian “Gentleman of Science”. Faraday’s meteoric rise to fame did not go unnoticed by the British government who appointed him the Scientific Adviser to the Admirality and who frequently requested he lecture at the Royal Military Academy. His notoriety even reached such a level that two British prime ministers summoned him twice to conduct government enquiries for events that needed the input of a scientist.
In the nineteenth century public lectures were popular amongst all levels of society for providing education and entertainment alike. Faraday knew about commercial value and public appeal, skills picked up during his time as a book-binder and from the activists Riebau had introduced him to during his apprenticeship. Incidentally, Faraday was not much of a confident speaker – spending hours practicing his presentations and experiments beforehand lest he make a mistake in the middle of a public lecture. Because of this preparation Faraday was able to deliver numerous engaging presentations, so engaging in fact that the Royal Family themselves were known to attend frequently. Faraday’s final contribution to the scientific legacy of Britain was his establishment of the Friday Evening Discourse where he enabled other scientists to demonstrate their experiments and articles to guests, investors, and to the media. The Discourse and subsequent ‘Christmas Lectures’ raised essential funds for the Royal Institution which helped ensure it’s survival to this day.
Michael Faraday died of natural causes in 1867, never denouncing either science or religion. Did he prove that the two can co-exist in the lifetime of one man?
Personally, I find the story of Michael Faraday inspiring. This is a person who humbly ascended from poverty to prominence, never indulging in the excess and lavish lifestyle many who climb in such a way do today. At his core Faraday was a something of a historical paradox, he was a devoutly religious man but was also dedicated to science. Faraday pursued a career in science out of his own curiosity about the world as a whole, he was not out to prove that science was better than religion or vice-versa – he did it simply because he found it engaging.
Why have some of the most influential scientific minds in history also been deeply religious minds?