Christian Man of Science
The bicentennial anniversary of Michael Faraday's birth was marked by a remarkable series of celebrations. In March 1991, he was honoured with a commemorative postage stamp and a special First-day cover. Later that year, his portrait and signature replaced William Shakespeare on our 20 pound notes. The Science Museum, the Royal Institution and the National Portrait Gallery all held special exhibitions to look back on his life and work. A special memorial service was held in Westminster Abbey. Numerous books, magazine articles and television programmes brought him to the attention of the public. Clearly, Faraday is highly regarded and his contributions to our society have been outstanding.
Michael Faraday was honourerd by his portait appearing on the British £20 note, together with an illustration of him lecturing at the Royal Institution
Physicists and chemists alike look back on Faraday as a worthy pioneer, although his achievements in physics are the best known. He formulated the laws of electromagnetic induction and did the groundwork necessary to make dynamos, electric motors and transformers. It was Faraday who devised the laws of electrolysis and laid the foundation for the electroplating industry. Faraday has the international unit for capacitance named after him, the Farad, marking his distinguished work with dielectrics; and also a physical constant, the Faraday Constant. He developed the concept of magnetic and electrical fields, and also showed that the electrical phenomena exhibited by lightning, electric eels and voltaic cells are all related. The `Faraday dark space', observed with electrical discharges in gases (for example, as in fluorescent tubes), pays tribute to him, and the `Faraday effect' in magneto-optics was one of his triumphs later in his career. This list draws attention to just highlights in a life packed full of innovative discoveries.
Most scientists would feel satisfied to make just one lasting contribution to their disciplines, but Faraday excelled in the quality and quantity of his output. It is natural for us to ask - how did he achieve all this? What made him tick? What motivated him? What kept him going? Many biographies disappoint because they restrict themselves to describing events that took place. We look for something a little deeper - what factors influenced Faraday as a human being and as a scientist?
Jim Baggott contributed a very perceptive article on Faraday to the 2nd September 1991 issue of New Scientist. After discussing aspects of this `man of genius', Baggott identifies religious belief as a key influence in Faraday's life.
`He was a devout member of the Sandemanian Church, a fundamentalist Christian
order that demanded total faith and total commitment. Sandemanians organised
their daily lives through their literal interpretation of the Bible. . .
Faraday found no conflict between his religious beliefs and his activities as a scientist and philosopher. He viewed his discoveries of nature's laws as part of the continual process of `reading the book of nature', no different in principle from the process of reading the Bible to discover God's laws. A strong sense of the unity of God and nature pervaded Faraday's life and work.'
Faraday's scientific world-view was deeply influenced by the message of the Bible. His belief in the unity of forces guided his experimental and theoretical research, and it linked with his belief in the unity of God. The connection came because of his deep conviction that God's revelation of himself in creation is not unrelated to his revelation of himself in Scripture.
Furthermore, Faraday knew that this universe is upheld by the mighty power of God, and that its behaviour is not irrational or petulant, but orderly and dependable - because God is faithful. Consequently, just as there are moral laws to govern our lives before God and fellow-man, so also are there physical and chemical laws which govern the behaviour of the material world. In his scientific work, Faraday sought to identify and describe these laws.
As an influential scientist, Faraday has provided us with a fine example of Christianity in action. There are numerous testimonials to his christian character. His natural temperament was to work extremely hard, and he could be described as a workaholic. However, at the same time, people found him a meek and tender person. John Tyndall, who knew him well, wrote about him:
`Underneath his sweetness and tenderness was the heat of a volcano. He was
a man of excitable and fiery nature; but through high self-discipline he
had converted the fire into a central glow and motive power of life, instead
of permitting it to waste itself in useless passion. `He that is slow to
anger', saith the sage, `is greater than the mighty, and he that ruleth
his own spirit than he that taketh a city.' Faraday was not slow to anger,
but he completely ruled his own spirit, and thus, though he took no cities,
he captivated all hearts.'
Though research activities dominated his working days, Faraday never neglected to meet with his Christian friends for worship and prayer. We quote again from John Tyndall who, it should be said, was an agnostic:
`I think that a good deal of Faraday's week-day strength and persistency
might be referred to his Sunday Exercises. He drinks from a fount on Sunday
which refreshes his soul for a week'.
`I must remain plain Michael Faraday to the last; and let me tell you, that
if I accepted the honour which the Royal Society desires to confer upon
me, I would not answer for the integrity of my intellect for a single year.'
`It could contribute to the advance of the gospel in our generation for
evangelical Christians to devote a level of attention to Faraday comparable
to that given, say, to C.H. Spurgeon.'
David J. Tyler (1992)