11 November 2008

The following is a small hand-out I made of our reading of Faraday. As there were two elderly people in my class I added a slightly sneering comment to rouse them. 


On  Faraday the ‘Anthology of Nineteenth Century Science’ tells he was of middle class decent. He was a member of the Sandemanians, a group of religious Christians who thought there was no basis in the New Testament for a national church and wanted to go back to primitive Christianity. They believed in the unity and harmony of nature. Rather heroically, Faraday, being an apprentice in a book bindery, educated himself and was able to make a career in a field where being of lower descent made you appear a lesser scientist. The following excerpt is from one of his Friday night Christmas lectures. Interestingly to note in advance is that he tirelessly worked behind the scenes to make the experiments look natural on stage. He even got eloquency lessons to improve his public performance. The lectures were held by the Royal Institution to earn enough money for its endeavours.


His public experiments with candles give us an interesting image of science popularized. With crowd pleasers like pop! (ignition of gas) and crunch! (collapse of can after subsequent heating and cooling of inside gas) Faraday was able to excite his audience. Public participation in these experiments build up the entertainment value even more. A lady brings Faraday Japanese candles of luxury to do his experiments with and Faraday says the crowd will be able to make these experiments themselves, which in the case of his experiments with carbonic acid can do not much harm. Faraday uses a simple train of reasoning for explaining what he is doing. Everything is done step by step and in a matter of fact way. This makes the experiments and conclusions evidential, you can see the experiments and even redo them yourself. Faraday unveils the mysteries of nature and makes them intelligible to the public. In one case he even reflects on a social issue when he tells his crowd about the ‘impropriety of many of the arrangements of the poorer classes’  due to bad ventilation. In his chemical explanation of a burning candle Faraday shows how to extinguish the light by putting his mouth over a tube and breathe thereby explaining the necessity of oxygen for combustion. In the end of his experiment with candles Faraday turns his explanation of scientific principles to the public into a kind of sermon. He concludes by stating the beauty of the simple process of the use of oxygen by people. They breathe oxygen which the body turns into carbon dioxide which is used by plants to create oxygen which creates this magnificent circle of dependency. According to Faraday, his listeners are like the candles he used in his experiments. They have this energy to shine, but need oxygen (breathing) to make them live, move, act and do things; they are therefore dependent on their fellow existers, i.e. the plants. He employs his audience to shine as lights to those about them.


To whom is Faraday addressing his public display of science? In the introduction to his lectures, Faraday says he means to pass away from the seniors in the audience and instead claims ‘the privilege of speaking to juveniles as a juvenile myself.’ In his first lecture he further informs his audience of what candles are made of, thereby beginning from the basis in his instruction on chemistry. His listeners need little to no background in chemistry. His lectures are accessible and use the clarity of expression needed for public education; no difficult jargon or an explanation to the words used is given. Faraday further uses his lectures to address social questions such as the conditions of the poorer classes and even his Sandemanian background jumps up at the end of the lecture when he teaches his public the harmony of nature. 


Ruben said...

Nice! I hope your two classmates didn't take it too seriously. Btw, can you perform Faraday's experiment one time? I would really like to see that!

Dirk said...

Ha, I don't know if that's the job of historians of science, but I can have a shot at it. It really is a well-known experiment though. Or do you not mean the bulb over the candle?

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