Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field: How Two Men Revolutionized Physics
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—Charlie Munger, Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Corporation, on CNBC's Squawk Box
“Compelling. …A lively account of the men and their times and a brilliant exposition of the scientific circumstances and significance of their work.”
—Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW
“The life and science of these two giants of nineteenth-century physics is beautifully documented and narrated in this riveting book.”
—Eric D’Hoker, Distinguished Professor of Physics, UCLA; past president, Aspen Center for Physics
“If it is possible for a book about the electromagnetic field to be a 'page turner,' then this book is one! . . . This conceptual approach to what can be a daunting topic . . . makes the thinking of these great scientists accessible to all. I highly recommend this book for anyone with a passion for science.”
“Perhaps the names of Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell aren’t as well known as Newton or Einstein, but they should be. The book traces their amazing collaboration.... But as equally fascinating as the tale of the discovery is that of the men behind it.... A fascinating true tale of the lives of two essential men of physics!”
“Blends science history and lively biography. …Accessible writing and a feel for character make this an interesting look at two scientists whose work defined an era and set the course for modern physics.”
“Fans of biographies, as well as anyone interested in science and technology…will enjoy reading about these ‘two modest and genial men whose combined endeavors changed the world.’”
About the Author
Basil Mahon is the author of The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell and Oliver Heaviside: Maverick Mastermind of Electricity, among other publications. With degrees in engineering and statistics, Mahon was formerly an officer in the Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and until his retirement worked for the British Government Statistical Service.
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The tone of the second half of the book also tends to be a little parochial. European works are downplayed, and there is the usual fawning glorification of the Oxbridge system (“to become senior wrangler was like winning an Olympic gold medal"), when others have argued that in pure mathematics at least, the history of 19th Century Britain was one of underachievement; see Gray’s epilogue in the book “Mathematics in Victorian Britain”.
Overall, in my opinion, this book is well worth the read, despite the disappointing aspects in the second half. A broader view can then be obtained by reading “The Maxwellians” by Bruce Hunt and "Oliver Heaviside: The Life, Work, and Times of an Electrical Genius of the Victorian Age”, by Paul J. Nahin.
“Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field” is an excellent, readable book on the life and contributions of two science giants, Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell. Authors Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon join forces to provide the public a very enjoyable look at how the these two scientists built from successive ideas and discovered the electromagnetic field. This interesting 330-page book includes seventeen chapters, notes, a formal bibliography and an index.
1. Professionally written science biographies blended into one accessible narrative.
2. The fascinating topic of the scientists behind the electromagnetic field.
3. The authors have great mastery of the topic but most importantly were able create an interesting narrative without resorting to the complex mathematics involved in physics and in particular, electromagnetism.
4. Good use of diagrams to complement the excellent narrative.
5. An excellent introduction that teases the public of what’s to come. “It is almost impossible to overstate the scale of Faraday and Maxwell's achievement in bringing the concept of the electromagnetic field into human thought. It united electricity, magnetism, and light into a single, compact theory; changed our way of life by bringing us radio, television, radar, satellite navigation, and mobile phones; inspired Einstein's special theory of relativity; and introduced the idea of field equations, which became the standard form used by today's physicists to model what goes on in the vastness of space and inside atoms.”
6. In essence this book is the story of the electromagnetic field that is brought to you by blending the biographies of Faraday and Maxwell in chronological order.
7. Throughout the book, the authors methodically and chronologically go through the lives of the scientists involved as new discoveries lead to scientific knowledge.
8. A look at the history of electricity and magnetism. “Before 1800, all man-made electricity was static. The discovery of continuous currents came as a complete surprise and was in the best tradition of scientific serendipity.”
9. The fascinating life of Michael Faraday, his strengths and weaknesses as a scientist. “We shall never know what Faraday would have achieved had he mastered mathematics, but, paradoxically, his ignorance may have been an advantage. It led him to derive his theories entirely from experimental observation rather than to deduce them from mathematical models.”
10. Some of the world’s greatest inventions are highlighted in this book. “This time, the magnet revolved around the wire! Faraday had become a discoverer: he had made the world's first electric motor.”
11. This book is intended for the laypersons but it doesn’t cheat those us in the STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) fields. The concepts are well described and satisfying. “The “quantity of electricity thrown into a current” was “directly as the amount of curves intersected.” This statement was true whether the curves were dense or sparse, converging or diverging, and neither the shape of the wire nor its mode of motion made any difference, except that the direction of the current depended on what became known as the right-hand rule. It was the original statement of one of the most fundamental laws of electromagnetism—now called simply Faraday's law of induction.”
12. The genius of James Clerk Maxwell and how he was able to describe such esoteric concepts particularly for those times. “Maxwell's imaginary fluid was weightless, friction-free, and incompressible. This last property was the key to the analogy. It meant that the fluid had its own built-in inverse-square law: the speed of a particle of fluid flowing directly outward from a point source was inversely proportional to the square of its distance from the source.”
13. Fascinating look at how Maxwell fed from Faraday’s own genius to take these concepts to a better understanding. “As Faraday had found, these substances varied in their ability to conduct electric lines of force—each had its own specific inductive capacity. For example, glass conducted electric lines of force more readily than wood. In his model, Maxwell accommodated this property simply by endowing each substance with the appropriate amount of resistance to fluid flow—the lower the resistance, the smaller the pressure gradient necessary to produce a given speed of flow.”
14. The authors capture the essence of these great scientists and help readers gain a better understanding of who they were. “Though surpassed by his later writings, Maxwell's “On Faraday's Lines of Force”10 is, surely, one of the finest examples of creative thought in the history of science. In his book James Clerk Maxwell: Physicist and Natural Philosopher, Francis Everitt shrewdly characterizes Faraday as a cumulative thinker, Thomson as an inspirational thinker, and Maxwell as an architectural thinker. Maxwell had not only found a way to express Faraday's ideas in mathematical language but also built a foundation for still-greater work yet to come.”
15. Goes over Maxwell’s manifesto, which was to produce a theory that explained all the known experimental laws of electricity and magnetism by deduction from general principles.
16. Key concepts explained and differentiated, “Maxwell distinguished between two kinds of energy held by the field: electric energy was potential energy, like that in a coiled spring; and magnetic energy was kinetic, or “actual” energy, like that in a flywheel.” “Maxwell had achieved the seemingly impossible—he had derived the theory of the electromagnetic field directly from the laws of dynamics.”
17. A look at the Maxwellians. “He straightaway wrote to Lodge to ask for a full text of his talk and soon found that he had another admirer, Lodge's friend George Francis Fitzgerald, who was professor of natural and experimental philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin. Like Heaviside, Lodge and Fitzgerald had been captivated by Maxwell's work and both had been trying, first in isolation and then with mutual support, to carry it on. Now Heaviside, the independent recluse, had gained true friendship on his own terms, and the three of them, united in a common cause, became firm friends and formed the core of the group that came to be called the Maxwellians.”
18. Einstein’s admiration for Maxwell. “As Einstein put it: Since Maxwell's time, physical reality has been thought of as represented by continuous fields and not capable of any mechanical interpretation. This change in the conception of reality is the most profound and fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.”
19. Provides a timeline and a photo insert.
20. Notes and an invaluable formal bibliography.
1. The supplementary material that is included is good but limited. I would have included a list of all the scientists listed in this book and their discoveries. A helpful timeline is included but an additional supplements add value to the book.
2. Even at it’s most accessible, if you don’t have much interest in science, this book will be difficult to get through. Not really a negative of the book just a reality check for onlookers.
In summary, this is an excellent book that the layperson will enjoy and those in the field will cherish. The authors did a wonderful job of focusing on the grand work of these curious, driven scientists without obfuscating the narrative with esoteric equations. What a wonderful way to learn about the lives of two of the most significant scientists of the 19th century and their grand contributions to our lives today. I highly recommend it!
Further recommendations: “The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell” by Basil Mahon, “The Electric Life of Michael Faraday” by Alan Hirshfeld, “Isaac Newton” by James Gleick, “Planck” by Brandon R. Brown, “QED” by Richard Feynman, “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics” by Carlo Rovelli, “Tesla” by W. Bernard Carlson, “Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson, and “Gravity” and “The Great Physicists from Galileo to Einstein” by George Gamow.
Top international reviews
After Faraday's story comes Maxwell's science and the mathematics. When Maxwell first produced his theory, the majority of scientists didn't understand it. And I certainly struggled ( unsuccessfully ) with it when I was doing A level physics many years ago. The authors have made a really good attempt to explain it all and I'm now in that place where having read the text I think I have understood it all, but can't explain it to anyone else ! (if you read science books, you must have been there before !).
All of us know Faraday and Maxwell from high school physics and think of them as geniuses. While that is evidently true, that is a limited perspective as we only studied what they discovered. This book is about how they went about finding what they discovered, and reveals them to be geniuses in an entirely different (and more useful) sense. Both demonstrated an extraordinary degree of integrity, pragmatism and intellectual humility in their work and at least for me, this was something that I neither realized nor appreciated until I read this book. While we’ll never be geniuses in the first sense, we can at least aspire to Faraday and Maxwell’s ideal in the second sense of the term. I’ll limit this review to these new facets that I didn’t know earlier and not to their work itself (which is not to imply that I got Maxwell’s equations at any point in my life).
Faraday was a poor blacksmith’s son and never attended school. His first job was as a bookbinder’s assistant. He attended free science lectures in his spare time, took meticulous notes and even tried to replicate a few experiments. He so impressed people around him that he was gifted tickets to attend a lecture series of Humphry Davy, who was considered Britain’s foremost chemist at that time. His notes and dedication again impressed Davy, who offered him the only job he had – that of a bottle washer, essentially cleaning up a chemistry lab after the experiments were done. Faraday jumped at this opportunity as he knew what apprenticing under Davy was worth. In fact, for a while, he also doubled up at Davy’s valet. To Davy’s credit, he saw Faraday’s potential and Faraday soon graduated from being Davy’s collaborator in chemistry experiments to being an independent chemist himself. Chemistry was the cutting edge of science in that time and both Faraday and Davy simply aimed to operate at that frontier. Once Volta demonstrated the first electric battery, the frontier shifted from chemistry to electricity and both men simply followed the shifting frontier.
Faraday was an unusually gifted experimental scientist, probably the best the world has seen. However, he was unusual in another sense as well – he was exceptionally meticulous not just in experiments, but also in honest record-keeping. He did something very rare – he wrote down equally detailed notes when an experiment failed or yielded a non-result as he did when an experiment succeeded. He then published all his notes, including countless experiments where he ran into dead-ends. His was probably the most unbiased and honest scientific record ever published.
He had one huge weakness that ended up working to his advantage. His lack of formal education meant that he never worked on or followed higher-level mathematics. Despite being the foremost experimental scientist in electromagnetism, he never published a formal theory on the same and also held back criticizing other scientists who theorized in mathematical terms despite not having a fraction of the empirical experience that Faraday had. Personally, I speculate that mathematics was never beyond Faraday but he was put off by it being a strange, unfamiliar language. Ironically, the fancy theoreticians could think only in Newtonian terms – instantaneous action-at-distance between point objects along straight lines, a la gravity. Faraday was unburdened by this legacy and articulated the view that was ultimately proven correct – electromagnetic fields, with curved lines of force permeating all of space, with electromagnetic waves travelling at a finite speed. He was the first to see light as an electromagnetic wave and ran clever experiments to polarize light using currents and magnets. It was astounding that the least mathematical scientist also had the correct theoretical understanding of this brave new world, entirely on the strength of instincts honed by experiments and observation.
Maxwell’s intellect was unmatched. At 14, he published a paper on geometry that was better than Descartes treatment of the same topic. He could pick up any topic and hold his own against the world’s best in that area. During a phase when Electromagnetism was his day-job, he also happened to be the foremost expert on the kinetic theory of gases (along with Boltzmann). However, the book brings out Maxwell’s second genius – as a diligent experimenter, who despite his genius, always placed experimental evidence over (even his) theory. He was very tentative in his theorizing, always clarifying that this was merely a way to model the world and need not be how the world actually worked. After proposing his kinetic theory of gases, he realized that if one of his inferences failed the experimental test, the theory was untenable. He set up an elaborate experiment at home (aided only by his non-scientist wife) to measure effect of pressure on viscosity, to stress test his own theory. When Maxwell first became interested in electromagnetism, he read all published work on the topic. At the end of that, he concluded that Faraday’s work had the most integrity and any theory that he came up with had to conform to Faraday’s bullet-proof experimental results. This criteria led him away from Newtonian models and he eventually ended up framing the theoretical construct that formalized what Faraday proposed in terms of fields, flux and waves. He was the first to relate the speed of light to electromagnetic constants. Although these constants had been determined by others, he insisted on conducting an independent experiment to derive the values of these constants, to really test whether his theory worked in practice.
Both men were also pragmatic and grounded way beyond what one would typically expect of academics finding their way through a whole new field. Both had ‘line jobs’. Faraday had to make the Royal Institution sustainably profitable, through creating a technical-consulting arm and popularizing its lectures. Maxwell had to set up Cambridge University’s science lab from scratch and make it self-sustaining. Both played key roles in debugging the first telegraph cables, including the first trans-Atlantic cable. Faraday did pioneering work on ensuring safety and reliability of every light-house in Britain. Maxwell came up with industry-standards and test-procedures to make sure that the nascent electrical industry could make reliable products. They gave evidence-based advice on topics as esoteric as to whether British military should use poison gas (No. Wind patterns could bring it right back) and whether oatmeal in military rations was contaminated. This real-world aspect of their roles made them even more grounded in evidence and reality.
History shows how correct both men were in their world view of a nascent field that no one in the world fully understood in their time. This seems to be, not merely due to their innate genius, but also due to the extraordinary degree of integrity, intellectual honesty, humility, pragmatism, rigor and reality-testing that both men made central to their work. Carl Sagan wrote that science wasn’t merely a body of knowledge, but a way of thinking. This book illustrates the scientific way of thinking better than any other.
Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon "knocked the baseball out of the park with bases loaded" when they wrote this book! This book is a beautiful story that had me hooked from beginning to end. The principal players in this 19th century science drama come to life for the reader. We learn about their childhood, their fascination with the world around them, the impediments and and the opportunities along the way, their rise to recognition in the scientific community, their families and friends, and the indelible mark they left for the greater good of humanity with their lives.
Michael Faraday was one of the greatest experimental physicists that ever lived. All his theories were tested to the best of his ability in his laboratory work and expertly documented. He was not mathematically well-versed but his theories were based on sound testing in the lab. The other scientists of the day disagreed with his theories, but he would be later proven to be right.
James Clark Maxwell came some forty years later on the scene, read Faraday's scientific papers and knew that this was a man of great genius. In Maxwell's relatively short life, he put his great mathematical prowess and experimental work to bear on Faraday's ideas, found them to be sound and published a monumental treatise on electricity and magnetism that was way ahead of its time.
It would take nearly twenty years following Maxwell's opus before the genius of Maxwell and Faraday would be understood and appreciated by the scientific community. Scientists, who came to realize this paradigm shift in our understanding of Nature, formed a group referred to as the "Maxwellians". From then on their came a sea-change in thinking, leading to major advances in both science and technology in the 20th century and beyond.
This book is a blockbuster! I believe it to be required reading for anyone who wants to read about science at its very best. The authors do not bog down their book with arcane equations as that would get in the way of the book's real intent. In my thinking, that intent is to capture the imagination of young minds to consider a rewarding career in whatever field of science they wish to put their energies to.
Or if you love reading a good biography of people who made a difference for the good, you'll also love this book. I congratulate Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon on a masterpiece worth reading!
The book showcases the lives of Faraday and Maxwell in a broad sense while picking certain parts of their lives to focus on. Particularly, the first half of the book is about Faraday and his amazing persistence in the pursuit of making science his career. The second half of the book is about Maxwell and his genuine ability to not only connect with people in incredible ways but also to see science like no one of his time could.
There are a few sections of the book where scientific contributions of these two extraordinary gentlemen are described with detailed illustrations as well as in broad layman terms.
Overall I think this book is a great way to be introduced to these two gentlemen and could be a great read for anyone interested in learning a little bit about the history of their scientific contributions!