Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking

By William H. Cropper | Go to book overview

11
A Force of Nature
Michael Faraday

Doing Without

The scientists in these chapters are a diverse group. One would look in vain to find particular aspects of their backgrounds or characters that guaranteed their success in science. Some were introverted and solitary, others extroverted and gregarious. Some were neurotic, while others were well adjusted. They could be friendly and agreeable, or unfriendly and contentious. Their marriages were usually happy, but some were disastrous. Their educations were both formal and informal. Some had mentors, others did not. Some founded schools to carry on their work, and others worked alone.

But these outstanding scientists had at least two things in common: they all worked hard, sometimes obsessively, and with only a few exceptions, they came from middle-class backgrounds. The tendency to workaholism is a trait found in most people who achieve outstanding success. More interesting is the rule of middle-class origins. Our physicists led lives in social worlds that covered the full middle-class range, from lower to upper, but rarely found themselves above or below these stations. By far the most prominent exception is the subject of this chapter, Michael Faraday, born in a London slum.

Faraday's father, James, was a blacksmith with a debilitating illness, who could barely support his family. Late in his life, Faraday recalled that in 1801, when economic times were bad, his weekly food allotment was a loaf of bread. His education, he told his friend and biographer, Henry Bence Jones, “was of the most ordinary description, consisting of little more than the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic at a common day-school. My hours out of school were passed at home and in the streets.”

But the misfortunes of poverty were balanced by a secure family life. Michael's mother, Margaret, “was the mainstay of the family,” writes Faraday's most recent biographer, Pearce Williams. “She made do with what she had for material needs, but offered her younger son that emotional security which gave him the strength in later life to reject all social and political distinctions as irrelevant to his own

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