Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Greatest Experimentalist of All Time

I first encountered Michael Faraday in a book I read about the atmosphere, and eventually gave to my Mom (so taken with it, I was), though I'm disturbed to realize I cannot recall it's name. I want to say "Up in the Air," but that's a book about flying and airports (strange sort of throwaway book.) So I cannot remember it's name, but my mother owns it, for I bought it for her after I read it at the library.

Michael Faraday is portrayed in that book as a genuinely fascinating character, and I think, a lovely man. He seems to have suffered for his prodigious moral character, his faith (in some strange sect of Christianity,) and in his youth, his poverty. He is actually one of the few enormously successful physicists who started out outside the middle classes. Newton was a servant as well as student in his early years of College, but there seems to be some reason to believe his Mother could actually have afforded him a more normal education. She seems to have been rather parsimonious. Then again, should I endure a modern Black Plague, there's no telling how thin my dimes might become!

So, Faraday was unusual in his coming up from nothing. As is often the case (and ubiquitous among successful people) a great many people took notice of him and helped him along, which bothered them no little amount when later Michael Faraday eclipsed them; their ward became the Warden.

Faraday's greatest contribution were his theories on, and experiments in, electromagnetism. This was in an era when many, many ideas were floating around which would prove to be wrong and in some cases completely rediculous. Theories on heat being a particularly rich proving ground of crazy speculation.

Faraday seemed to have a considerable gift of creativity, noted by none other than Einstein, multiple times (Farraday's work midwifed much that Plank and Heisenberg established near the birth of Quantum Mechanics. His work, more or less began the debate about the split between the behavior of the very big and very small. He was also one of the first to seriously contemplate the notion of gravity as a force in the typical sense. Newtonian physics was more than equipped to describe the behavior of Newton's Apple, but had a great deal of trouble dissecting that force with any sort of ready classification for it's behavior. Farraday ran straight into the maul of that problem as he mused on "forces" and "fields" that Physics had happily, up to then, regarded as indescribable.)

But Faraday had a problem that, along with the depth of his insight, contributed to him having to wait till a fairly advanced age to see many of his ideas accepted. He was unable to do Calculus. He could just barely perform advanced Algebraic calculations. Kind of amazing, when you consider his genius. You can bet his inability to move smoothly through the language of science (Math, Calculus) was a black mark on his Physics. His contemporaries (in Theory) considered him barely a Physicist at all. And today, of course, nobody would regard him as one.

So, while he made penetrating insights into the nature of electromagnetism, few of his contemporaries listened outside of the Royal Institution (where Faraday lived on the top floor, lectured on the ground floor (famously giving lay person lectures on Science) and kept his laboratories in the basement, from his youth through old age.) Despite the fact that he invented the first electric motor (of a kind) few Theorists cared at all, since Faraday's description was far from the vernacular of Physics. Kind of makes you wonder why he didn't just go ahead and give six months to the darn calculations. There are, unfortunately, few in depth Biographies on the man in print.

In case you think this electromagnetism stuff is old news, you might ask yourself how well you understand it. Chances are, if you're like me, you simply have discarded any real attempt at penetrating the phenomena of magnetism, and electromagnetism, due to the perfectly obvious observation: the whole thing is vaguely magical, and otherwordly. It sure is.

Consider the basic ideas behind an electric motor, and tell me if any of it has an address in your subdivision of common sense.

For one thing: somehow or other scientists figures out that magnetism creates forces in regular lines (the iron filing experiment you did in school. Where you see lines of force coming off a magnet, by sprinkling iron filings onto a piece of white paper and placing a magnet on the other side. The lines of force are regular, and don't move or change.)

And: those forces, when crossed by a conductive metal, or wire, create a small amount of current in the metal or wire. When you move a piece of wire, perpendicular to the forces you see your iron filings describe, a small amount of electricity can be detected in your wire by a device that measures such things.

Faraday was the first to perform this experiment and the first to grasp it's essential weirdness. The first thing he realized was that these forces were not, more or less, explainable, given what he knew of the physics of his day.

If you stop and think about it, why should crossing a magnetic "force field" around a magnet or electromagnet create a current in a metal wire? Can you think of any reason that explains such an action (the production of electricity) at a distance (the magnet doesn't touch the wire, and vice versa.)

When you look inside a generator, trust me, all you will ever see is a bunch of wire (windings they are called, due no doubt to some clever cad tasked with performing the creation of them.) attached to a sort of spinning case (that looks like a bike pedal.) Some kind of device that allows electricity to flow through a spinning axle allows the windings to spin freely past many, many wires. The windings create an electromagnet, and the electromagnet creates lines of force, which when they move across the surrounding copper wires, create a great deal of electricity, compared to Farraday's first experimental model.

Again, the power that comes from a generator (depending) can be enough to kill a man. And all of that deadly electricity is produced by wires moving through magnetic fields. Why does copper moving through a magnetic field produce electricity? I think a description is easier, than an explication here, but this isn't the place for either. So many things in life can (eventually) be described, but somehow a description is often out of scale with the human imagination. Perhaps that's why it takes some degree of study and experiment in the first place!

Isn't it great that so many things are basically mysterious and unknowable, even as we conjure them with the flick of a switch? Why so much confidence in the unknown? Because the question, "How's it work?" doesn't obviate that it does!

Anyhow, Faraday is a delicious character to read about, and his interest in experimental physics on the bench, coupled for him perfectly with lectures (still in print) on "The Chemical History of the Candle" for an adoring lay public. He got the difference between science with a capital "S" and it's origin: somebody being hooked on a feeling that led to revealing, through their various disciplines (but also courage.) I read the other day a review of a book that pointed out that anything can be explained if it's purpose is allowed to hook the interest of the reader, or listener or friend. To often in life, the orator, or writer, of husband, or parent, or friend operates on the "just because" method of giving out info. Very efficient if I could only remember why...

No comments: