Last night’s COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey explored the secret underlying the birth of modern technology, the makeup of our natural world and the scientific theories that inspired Albert Einstein: magnets. Far more than just the trinkets that decorate our refrigerator doors, magnetic forces guide the course of our planet through the universe, governing all motion unfolding on Earth.
However, the great thinker who conceptualized the universe’s magnetic fields has been overshadowed by the men he influenced. His works bridged the gap between Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, but his name is left out of our elementary school science textbooks. As if revealing our world’s natural magnetic framework wasn’t a big enough achievement, he also was a pioneer of electricity, inventing the electric motor, the transformer and the generator. Considering that this mystery scientist also came from the squalid London slums and received little schooling, his story seems too momentous not to be told.
Meet Michael Faraday.
Faraday decoded the universe’s magnetic fields, solving a problem that stumped Isaac Newton. One of science’s greatest thinkers, Newton shaped our understanding of our universe with his laws of gravity. But while Newton was able to attribute movements in the galaxy to gravity, he was left wondering about the framework that kept gravity in place. His laws delineate the motions of the planets around the Sun, but he couldn’t explain exactly how the Sun exerted this force over the planets without even coming into contact with them. An apple falling on his head provided Newton with the concept of gravity, but he couldn’t decipher how the apples knew how to fall.
That’s where Faraday’s work came into the picture. The answer to Newton’s questions is the universe’s magnetic fields, which enables the Sun to control the motion of its surrounding planets and dictates the path of an apple falling to the ground on Earth. But it would take a lifetime of experimentation by Faraday to discover.
Faraday’s story is a fairy tale of triumphs and tragedies. Born into a poor London family in 1791, he was apprenticed to a bookbinder at age 13, destined for a life as a craftsmen. Spending his nights reading the books he bound by day, he developed a love of learning. At 21, he escaped into the scientific realm after he heard a lecture by one of London’s leading scientists Humphry Davy, bound the transcript into a book and presented it to Davy. So impressed by the young man’s memory and skill, Davy took Faraday on as an assistant, where he introduced the young man to his work with electric currents.
By age 40, Faraday’s accomplishments had transcended those of his teacher. Faraday’s work converting electric currents into continuous mechanical motion led to his groundbreaking inventions that would change the way homes, farms and factories operated. As he got older, he was plagued with memory loss, fighting against his ailing mind to probe deeper into another mysterious invisible force – magnetism. After years of work, by using a magnet to manipulate light to pass through a piece of glass, Faraday discovered how the unity of magnetism, light and electricity detected a continuous force field, invisible but powerful.
Earth itself is one big magnet, its lines of force extending to affect all movement on Earth. Some living creatures can even sense this force field, guided by the invisible compass. For example, birds migrate thousands of miles without getting lost by using this magnetic field as a guide, sensing its direction to tell north from south as they fly to warmer climates in the winter. But until Faraday’s breakthrough, no human had been able to explain the phenomenon.
When Michael Faraday proposed his theory to the scientific community, his peers rejected his ideas that lines of force exist in the universe, calling on Faraday to prove his ideas through physics equations. After dedicating his life to science, Faraday’s lack of formal education meant his theories were doomed. It wasn’t until another scientist, James Clerk Maxwell, translated Faraday’s ideas into science that electromagnetic fields were accepted by science.
But Faraday’s story is still a triumphant one, as he rose from poverty to become one of the most celebrated scientists of his time, answering Newton’s unsolved questions while providing a framework for Albert Einstein’s understanding of the Earth’s mysterious forces. His story deserves not just to be told, but celebrated.
Watch Neil deGrasse Tyson and the COSMOS creators talk about how Faraday’s work can inspire science lovers around the world: