The Internet is obsessed with Nikola Tesla, with good reason. But I would argue that one of his predecessors, Michael Faraday, is just as worthy of all that attention. The son of a blacksmith, Faraday lived in 19th century London and eventually made some of the most important discoveries in physics and chemistry. Of course, there are plenty of other scientists who have made groundbreaking discoveries. So what's so special about Michael Faraday?
1. He was a self-made scientist.
Michael Faraday left school at 13 to work as an errand boy; by 14, he was an apprentice to a London book-binder. Though he had learned only basic arithmetic in school, young Faraday took an interest in the books he was binding. He began staying after hours to read, and it wasn't long until he was attending scientific lectures. In 1812, Faraday went to several lectures given by the chemist Humphry Davy. Faraday was so inspired by the lectures that he wrote to Davy and asked to be his assistant, despite having no formal science education. Although Davy at first turned him down, one of his lab assistants was later fired, and Davy gave Faraday the job. Everything that Faraday eventually discovered was a result of Davy's impeccable experimental style.
2. His lecture series are still running.
Michael Faraday, the under-educated lab assistant, is responsible for two of the Royal Institution's longest-running traditions. The first is the Friday Evening Discourse, in which members of the Royal Institution dress very formally in order to hear a one-hour lecture from a selected scientist. The speaker traditionally is locked in a room 5 minutes before the appointed start, as one lecturer once fled before his time, forcing Faraday to give an impromptu lecture.
Faraday's second tradition within the Royal Institution is the Christmas Lectures. The Christmas Lectures began as a way of introducing science to children, at a time when science education was scarce at best. The lectures have continued since 1825, with the only interruption being World War II. Faraday himself gave 19 Christmas Lectures, mostly about chemistry and electricity, though his most famous lecture was “The chemical history of a candle.”
3. He made electric power possible.
One of Faraday's most important discoveries is that of electromagnetic induction. Basically, Faraday found that if you move a magnet through a metal loop, that metal loop will have an electric current running through it while you're moving the magnet. The discovery was enormous. Not only did it underscore the connection between electric and magnetic fields (now commonly referred to simply as electromagnetic fields), but it proved that electricity could be created with nothing more than a magnetized piece of metal and a metal loop.
Faraday used this knowledge to create the first transformer (the thing that's inside the big brick on your laptop charger) and the first electric generator. He went on to create devices that laid the groundwork for modern transformers, generators, and electric motors.
4. He's one of the fathers of electrochemistry—but it was kind of an accident.
Faraday was trying to prove that all electricity is the same electricity when he stumbled upon the first two laws of electrochemistry. These laws deal with the relationship between the amount of electricity used and the amount of substance converted through a chemical reaction. These principles are still used in electrochemistry today to make things like batteries, metal-coated objects, and purified metals.
5. He invented the Faraday cage.
His name's in the title, so it shouldn't be a surprise that he invented it—but what is it? A Faraday cage (or Faraday shield) blocks whatever is inside the cage from static electric fields. This principle, which Faraday discovered in 1836, has all kinds of cool applications. Not only are Faraday cages used to protect electronic equipment from lightning, but they can also protect people from electric death lightning. One of my physics professors demonstrated this effect (sadly, not on video) by climbing inside a Faraday cage and licking an exposed and functioning generator.
Sarah Frazier is a sophomore majoring in Physics at Rice University. She's part of our College Weekend extravaganza.