Michael Faraday

In Our Time: Series 18, Episode 13


My friend calls physics magic.  Electricity is known as electrickery.  I completely agree.  When I try to think about how a smart phone works my head hurts.  It’s just easier to believe in magic and wizards.

Michael Faraday appears to have been a very powerful wizard who did lots of spells I couldn’t understand in my first listen to this podcast.  In fact, this is where making myself write about each episode of In Our Time regardless of the topic comes into its own as a tool of self-improvement.  Now I can say I kind of understand what electromagnetic induction is.  Although, to be fair, not entirely.

Let’s imagine my brain is sitting in Science class.  There will always be a bit where the person explaining assumes something, or skips a point and my brain wants to put up its hand and say, “hang on… wtf?” (“See this hat?  Voila! Here’s the rabbit”).  I have found that the best thing to do in this case is to repress the urge to put my hand up (“Hang on, how do hats generate rabbits?”), and wait for the explanation to unfold.  My questions very rarely get answered, but I do understand the point the scientist was trying to make (the hat and rabbit example breaks down a bit here).

In the explanation of how moving a magnet past or through a coil of copper wire creates electricity that can power things I learned a lot.  It’s kind of cool to see how something that is so simple is the basis of a generator, or a power station, and that from there you can begin to electrify your house, town or city.  It also explains why old power stations were so huge.  Spinning those magnets past the coils at high speed required an awful lot of energy from a steam turbine.  This in turn explains alternative energy.  Instead of dirty coal turning the turbines you can use wind or water.  As you can see, an awful lot has fallen into place for this poor science brain.

But then there are those questions I had right at the start which didn’t get answered.  When you spin magnets past copper coil it induces a current.  Which leads to my questions: (1) A current?  And also, (2) Why?

Question one went ok.  Dr Internet told me about free electrons getting triggered to move in one direction and coming out the end of something like a wire as electricity.  I tried not to think about that too much, as I could feel a whole set of other questions forming.  Question two went badly.  I won’t bore you with the details but when it comes to the question of what the fricken hell is going on with magnets I am forced back on magic as an explanation.

I am not, of course, alone in talking magic.  The emergence of electricity as a thing in everyday life encouraged all kinds of hocus pocus in the drawing rooms of many Victorians who wasted a lot of emotional energy being conned by mediums who convinced an awful lot of people that you could bring the spiritual into the physical world.  I mean, if magnets and coils produce magical invisible things that turn on lights then surely there are other invisible forces in the world, right?

For every event there are many unforeseen consequences.  One consequence of the murderous trenches of World War One was the exponential rise of fear in the world.  The death of so many, so far from home, led to a need in those at home to know if their loved ones were ok.

Mediums offered a way to have that knowledge.  Alongside the adverts in the newspapers for spiritualists and clairvoyants were also the prosecutions for fortune-telling in New Zealand.  Offering this service to family members was illegal because it was a con.  It was taking money and then telling lies.  It was, in fact, a despicable thing to do although the reporting is often comic.

Evening Post, 20 September 1917

The defendant in this case was Ada Biggins, a fortune teller.

Faraday wrote a letter to the Times in 1853 condemning the earlier practitioners of these “arts” which attracted a lot of hate mail for him in the mid-19th century.  His experiments with electricity, and magnets seemed to suggest hidden forces and worked on weaker minds (such as mine) to hint at spirits and magic.  The “serious” practitioners of this art were always trying to make the link between their practices and science:

Evening Post, 8 December 1917

Faraday was a devout Christian and believed he was operating on God’s “stuff” in order to understand how God had created the universe.  He viewed himself not as a scientist but as a natural philosopher standing before nature as a priest.  To me it seems preposterous to believe that a man-shaped entity created Earth (and the universe, although this is not discussed) because… well, no real reason is given, so just because.  Many millenia later he then had a woman divinely impregnated….  You the know the rest.  Faith is required to believe all that, and I don’t have it.

Faraday was clearly both a deeply religious man, and a brilliant scientist.  I don’t really think they are incompatible, although the combination makes people like Dawkins really unhappy.  It is perfectly possible to be both.  If I were going to enter into a terrible simile I would say that it often appears that putting our contradictions together can generate creativity and stimulate the intellect in a person much like inducing currents with magnets and coils. (Sorry.)

On the upside, if I ever find myself trapped in a really well equipped lab in a power cut I might be able to build a basic generator and fulfill a lifelong ambition to have a moment as MacGyver.

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

2 thoughts on “Michael Faraday”

  1. I sense that many scientists feel this pain. They actually can explain some things but become aware as they are doing it that they are losing their general audience so they flail at metaphors that are somehow inadequate and lead to the impression that there’s all this mystical stuff going on when there isn’t. It’s not unlike when a child asks something like “what’s money?” and you try and explain and they zone out.

  2. Richard Feynman was asked by a BBC interviewer to explain magnetism, and he used a rather vague metaphor but, when pressed admitted that he just couldn’t explain it to someone who didnt have a strong background in mathematics and physics.

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