Tuesday, September 22, 2015

`Accommodate His Knowledge to the Purposes of Life'

Celebrate the birthday of Michael Faraday (b. Sept. 22, 1791) by recalling the man who in addition to discovering electromagnetic induction (making the electric motor possible, among other things) and benzene, gracing the language with cathode, electrode and ion, and lending his name to the “farad” (a unit of electrical capacitance), found time to organize a self-improvement “essay-circle” in Regency London. His accomplishments are more remarkable when we know Faraday was the unschooled son of a poor blacksmith who was apprenticed for seven years, beginning at age fourteen, to George Ribeau, a bookbinder and book dealer in London. In The Electric Life of Michael Faraday (2006), Alan Hirshfeld describes Ribeau’s shop as the future physicist/chemist’s “library, classroom, and laboratory.” One recalls the childhood of Samuel Johnson, the largely self-taught son of a provincial book dealer, who took a lively interest in chemistry.

Literally an autodidact, Faraday was what Americans used to call a self-starter, a go-getter, driven by curiosity and intellectual ambition – a sort of scientific Horatio Alger. As a boy he read Improvement of the Mind (1674) by the hymnist Sir Isaac Watts, and told a friend it taught him how to think. He never went to university. Instead, Faraday attended lectures by the great chemist Humphry Davy of the Royal Institution and Royal Society, and John Tatum, a silversmith and founder of the City Philosophical Society. Inspired by Davy, Faraday in 1812 set up his own electrochemical laboratory, and the following year Davy hired him as a chemical assistant at the Royal Institution. Around the same time, Faraday and friend, Benjamin Abbott, commenced another self-improvement project. Wishing to correct his weaknesses in “composition, clarity, and grammar,” he and Abbott exchanged weekly letters. “Epistolary writing is one cure for these deficiencies,” he wrote. In 1818, with three friends, Faraday organized his essay-writing club. The enterprise is entertainingly documented in Michael Faraday’s `Mental Exercises’: An Artisan Essay-Circle in Regency London (Liverpool University Press, 2008), edited by Alice Jenkins.

The circle lasted for almost a year – a laudable accomplishment for a group of industrious young men. The members exchanged monthly essays on mutually agreed upon themes, most of them familiar to us from their contemporaries Lamb, Coleridge and Hazlitt -- “On the Pleasures and the Uses of the Imagination,” “On the Early Introduction of Females to Society,” “On Tradesmen.” Jenkins includes in her volume all of the essays produced by the members, and tabulates the literary allusions incorporated by the young men into their essays. The work most often cited by Faraday is the Bible, followed by Dr. Johnson, especially Boswell’s Life and The Rambler. Jenkins describes him as “an enthusiastic reader of Johnson,” and adds: “Faraday’s personal relish for Johnson—and for Addison and Pope—grounds his literary taste in classicism, though he was also very fond of contemporary writers, including Byron and Thomas Moore.” Jenkins includes a portion of The Rambler #137, published on July 9, 1751, a particular favorite of Faraday’s. In it, Johnson writes:

“`Books,’ says Bacon, `can never teach the use of books.’ The student must learn by commerce with mankind to reduce his speculations to practice, and accommodate his knowledge to the purposes of life.”

[See the late Dr. Oliver Sacks’ Uncle Tungsten: Memoirs of a Chemical Childhood (2001) for an account of his boyhood infatuation with Humphry Davy (“one of my particular heroes”) and Michael Faraday. See also Faraday’s The Chemical History of a Candle (1861), one of the finest books of popular science ever written by a scientist: “There is no better, there is no more open door by which you can enter into the study of natural philosophy, than by considering the physical phenomena of a candle.”]

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