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An Electric Book

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Michael Faraday Michael Faraday

This important book on the origins of electromagnetism was first printed in 2005. The author, Friedrich Steinle of the Technical Univ. of Berlin, wrote in German. It is now available in English due to the expert translation of Alex Levine, professor of philosophy from the Univ. of South Florida.

 

What Steinle does is capture the excitement of the discovery of electromagnetism by Hans Oersted in 1820, and the subsequent rush to study it further by the greatest experimental scientists of the age: Andre-Marie Ampere and Michael Faraday. He does this by using archival documents never before studied including lab notes, diaries and letters.

 

Why was this research nearly two centuries ago important? The study by Faraday led to the first generators, transformers and electric motors. Einstein used the lessons learned from this study of magnetism and electricity to develop his theory of relativity. Modern life and science would not exist without the research studied in this book. While delving into the details as Steinle does may be primarily of interest only to physicists, it has far wider implications for the development of science.

 

Steinle begins with an excellent survey of electrical studies in the early nineteenth century, looking at such seminal figures as Volta (where we get the word 'voltage' from) in Italy, Humphrey Davy in England, Ritter in Germany and Oersted in Denmark. This was obviously a Europe-wide study as scientists struggled to figure out just what electricity and magnetism really were. Once Oersted discovered they were manifestations of the same phenomena, sparks literally flew all over Europe as researchers worked in their laboratories in the hopes of unlocking the mystery of what was really going on.

 

Here I will just summarise what led up to a critical day: September 3, 1821; and what happened immediately after it. The scientist was Faraday.

 

Up until then researchers had thought only in terms of attraction and repulsion, but his results “denied the fundamental character” of this notion. He thus “broke with traditional conceptions. It is important to highlight that these ideas were formed in the context not only of intense experimentation but also of successive attempts to find the most general graphical presentation of the experimental results.” This, says the author, “involved a highly versatile use of various visual perspectives.” What Faraday found was the circular nature of the electromagnetic force, but he did not arrive at it on this single miraculous day as previous scholars have said; rather it developed over a period of several weeks, as Steinle shows for the first time.

 

Now that Faraday had dethroned attraction and repulsion from their “status as primitive modes of action,” what did he do next? He realised, says Steinle, that this discovery would “bring him great recognition.” He immediately set to work to write a paper. Since his colleagues were all away from London at the time, he decided on submitting his report at once to secure his priority claim. “In this situation, urgency superseded caution, and Faraday resolved to publish his article regardless - a decision he would come to regret.”

 

Steinle does not concentrate solely on the scientific excitement, putting it in context with the following sentence. “Faraday must have worked day and night, which is all the more remarkable as Sarah, so soon after getting married, would probably have liked to occasionally find her Michael spending his evenings not only in the laboratory and at his desk.” It was another decade before Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction, the basis of nearly all future developments in science and technology. In his concluding chapter, Steinle examines the implications of exploratory experimentation. In conclusion, he says it is “essential to our historical understanding of science.”

 

Even though the book has 494 pages, the main text ends at page 338. The next 90 pages consist of two technical appendices relating to Ampere's research (a lot of it in French), and a set of notes running to nearly 40 more pages. The references are also very extensive: 30 pages of them.

 

Exploratory Experiments: Ampere, Faraday, and the Origins of Electrodynamics (494 pgs) is $65 from Univ. of Pittsburgh Press.

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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