Dan D'avella's Reviews > Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field: How Two Men Revolutionized Physics

Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field by Nancy  Forbes
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it was amazing
bookshelves: science, history

Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field: How Two Men Revolutionized Physics was my first read of 2017, and it set a high bar for everything else I intend to read this year. I love biographies of scientists because when done well they bring together my two favorite non-fiction genres (history and popular science, if you didn't guess). I had high hopes for this one going in because of the subject matter and because of other reviews. I was not disappointed.

When we think of exemplars of scientific genius, we generally think of icons like Newton or Einstein, who were responsible for major revolutions in our understanding of the universe. We also find ourselves captivated by figures like Richard Feynman who, in addition to his apparent genius, had a personality that made him larger-than-life. While their accomplishments may be impressive, other scientists like Faraday and Maxwell are often seen simply as the dots that connect the Newtons and Einsteins.

After reading this book, however, I am convinced that both Faraday and Maxwell were geniuses of the first order and that they made contributions to our understanding of the world that were at least as significant as those of Einstein and Newton. In fact, special relativity is in some sense a natural consequence of Maxwell's electromagnetic field theory (Einstein himself admitted that he stood on Maxwell's shoulders). Even more surprising is the fact that Faraday anticipated the idea that other forces including gravity might also be transmitted by "lines of force," which is exactly what general relativity predicts. In this respect, Faraday might be one of the first scientists to consider unified field theories (although he was ridiculed for these ideas in his own lifetime).

Although this book favors explanations of the scientific concepts over biographical details (which suited my tastes just fine), it is clear that in addition to being world-class scientists, both Faraday and Maxwell were generous and conscientious men who did their best to serve humankind with their gifts. Faraday spent time helping to improve lighthouses around Britain, which was a matter of life and death for sailors of the time. Maxwell helped to improve the effectiveness of oceanic telegraph cables which were responsible for an information revolution at least as significant as that in our own era. Both were teachers of some renown, and both penned books that were, and still are, considered definitive in the study of electromagnetism.

The authors work to dispel the commonly held notion that Faraday's contributions were primarily experimental while Maxwell's were exclusively theoretical. Maxwell was an extremely clever and accomplished experimental scientist who made great contributions to the study of human color vision. Faraday's theories of "lines of force" that must transmit electrical and magnetic forces through space and time were the seed that germinated in Maxwell's mind.

While this book did not provide as much general historical concept as some other scientific biographies, it did contain a rich cast of secondary characters, including figures such as Davy, Ampere, Heaviside, and Hertz, who made significant contributions to the understanding of electromagnetism in their own right (in fact, the introduction to the book contains a beautiful description of Hertz's experiment that confirmed the existence of electromagnetic waves). In addition, the epilogue discusses in some depth the implications of Faraday's and Maxwell's discoveries for twentieth century science, including the insights of Einstein and others.

The authors place some emphasis on scientific process. They seem sympathetic to the idea that the concept of electromagnetic fields represented a true paradigm shift from the Newtonian worldview. However, they also show that real science proceeds incrementally, with many small contributions from many different places. While Faraday's and Maxwell's contributions were greater than most, they weren't working in a vacuum. Which leads me to my next point: aether. It is easy to ridicule the concept of the aether with hindsight, but the authors make a strong case that it was a quite useful idea in the history of science and that Maxwell's theory would not have been possible without it. Even wrong ideas can be valuable tools.

One criticism I have is that some of the explanations of the Faraday's and Maxwell's theories about electromagnetism were fairly hazy. In Faraday's case this may be because his theories represent a fairly early stage in the understanding of electromagnetism. In Maxwell's case, it is because the explanations are completely non-mathematical (although there are references to fundamental concepts in vector calculus). As the authors point out, Maxwell's theories represent a first in mathematical physics in that the theory is entirely abstract: it is completely represented by the mathematical description itself, which does not lend itself to intuition. This paved the way for nearly all of twentieth century physics. In all, the authors did a fine job in presenting this content to a non-specialist reader.

In short, this was a fantastic read, and I would highly recommend it to all enthusiasts of science. It makes me wish I had studied physics or electrical engineering.

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Reading Progress

November 7, 2015 – Shelved
November 7, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
December 31, 2016 – Started Reading
December 31, 2016 – Shelved as: science
December 31, 2016 – Shelved as: history
January 17, 2017 – Finished Reading

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