May 28, 2017

Review: Faraday, Maxwell and the Electromagnetic Field by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon

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Quick, what was the most pivotal breakthrough of the 19th century? And no, it wasn’t “steampunk”… it was our understanding of electromagnetism, a breakthrough that fundamentally altered our civilization. Electric lights, refrigerators, hi-fis and blogging wouldn’t exist without it. This week’s review looks at the lives and times of two inventors and scientists whose insights made the modern miracle of electricity possible.

This Friday’s review, entitled Faraday, Maxwell and the Electromagnetic Field by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon out from Prometheus Books looks at a fascinating chapter of science history. Perhaps the names of Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell aren’t as well known as Newton or Einstein, but they should be. The book traces their amazing collaboration that spanned 40 years to give us an incite and united two fundamental forces of physics: electricity and magnetism. What’s more, this breakthrough was the first inkling that set physics on a hunt that continues to this day: the unity of the strong and weak nuclear forces later described in the 20th century and the ongoing search for grand unification of that final stubborn force: gravity.

But as equally fascinating as the tale of the discovery is that of the men behind it. Faraday, Maxwell and the Electromagnetic Field delves into the early lives of both men and the times they inhabited. Early 19th century science was a time of transition, a point where Newtonian physics was just starting to prove its mettle as a science with true predictive power. The 1846 discovery of Neptune highlighted this triumph, demonstrating the ability to find a planet using nothing but mathematics. Its amazing to consider that Faraday himself had little mathematical training and progressed from a simple bookbinder’s apprentice all the way up to the directorship of Great Britain’s Royal Institution. Faraday’s concepts concerning electromagnetism were far ahead of his time, and it would take the mathematical brilliance of James Clerk Maxwell for the full underpinnings of Faraday’s ideas to take hold. While many cite that Einstein’s discovery of Special and General Relativity and later the photo-electric effect — for which he won a Nobel prize in 1921 — stood on the shoulders of Newton, Einstein himself would’ve stated, had you asked him, that he actually stood on the shoulders of Faraday and Maxwell.

But beyond his insights he gave us on electricity, Maxwell could be said to be the father of modern information theory with his concept of Maxwell’s Demon. Curiously, Maxwell preferred to think of the “demon” as more of a valve, an element of the famous thought experiment that demonstrated that the 2nd law of thermodynamics only possesses a statistical level of certainty.

And the ideas of Faraday and Maxwell led the way for other great scientists and inventors such as Marconi, Edison and Tesla to later dazzle and transform us. Be sure to check out Faraday, Maxwell and the Electromagnetic Field for a fascinating true tale of the lives of two essential men of physics!

Next Week: we look an American Revolution that never was with the alternate history tale Liberty: 1784!



  1. Jean Dufour says:

    I did notice Doc Brown lacked a dog between Newton and Einstein. This is why I had to name my cat Maxwell.

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