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Michael Faraday pioneer scientist

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 twenty pound note

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.

It is worth emphasising that his Christianity was wholehearted: Faraday loved to worship his God in the company of fellow-believers, and church meetings were a priority in his busy week. For many years, he was an elder in the fellowship, and he shared in the preaching of the Word of God.

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:

This discipline in such a choleric character should be seen as a fruit of the Spirit of God.

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:

Faraday had a profound sense of the fallibility of man. This undoubtedly derived from reading the Bible with understanding, but two specific influences might also be identified. As a young man, he often carried in his pocket a book by Isaac Watts called `The improvement of the mind'. This treatise contained invaluable Christian counsel on self-improvement. Being a sound biblical teacher, Watts urged his readers to be watchful over their own hearts and minds, lest they be deceived. But Faraday witnessed vivid confirmations of these dangers in the lives of his contemporaries. He saw how pride could develop and lead to sad and ugly consequences. For this reason, he always resisted high honours which others sought to bestow on him. On one occasion, he explained: In the November 1991 issue of Evangelicals Now, Dr David Watts wrote: In Faraday, we have a worthy example of godliness in an eminent scientist. We seek to learn from him and thank God for this faithful servant of Jesus Christ.

David J. Tyler (1992) 

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