Friday, May 22, 2015

Faraday, Maxwell and the Electromagnetic Field

After Newton, everyone was pretty sure that the properties of the physical world had been figured out. Things travel in a straight line unless acted upon and all that. But then some experimenters, led by the brilliant Faraday, demonstrated that some activities appeared to operate as fields. A generation later, the brilliant Maxwell was able to formalize/quantify how these fields worked. As a result, today we have a world totally reliant on their discoveries as we are utterly dependent on electricity. Nancy Forbes tells this tale in her book, Faraday, Maxwell and the Electromagnetic Field.

There's lots of stuff in this book that a historian might find familiar. New discoveries were pooh-poohed by the scientific community of the time, as these discoveries did not fit into the existing paradigm. The guy making the groundbreaking experimental discoveries (Faraday) was somewhat of an outsider to the community, and it is perhaps this perspective that allowed him to break from the chains of conventional thinking.

These two were also extremely well-read. Faraday's first job was as a book binder, which afford him the opportunity to read an absolute ton, and become fascinated by several subjects.

I found it interesting how scientists at the time used math to derive new discoveries. What Faraday did was discover electricity through experimentation. Since the new discoveries and the theories resulting from them could not be explained by the math available at the time, scientists had a hard time accepting them. I saw some parallels with how the Efficient Market Hypothesis is used today: since we can't explain price movements by anything available today, we force fit this model even though it doesn't really explain what happens.

I found the implications of force fields on gravity fascinating as well. After Newton and before Faraday, it was assumed that gravitational force just instantaneously occurs between two masses. Faraday's discoveries opened a new door to understanding the mechanism: it is through force fields that travel at light speed that such masses are likely connected.

I won't pretend to understand everything in the book. Forbes goes into some detail on the electrical properties discovered, but without a whole lot in the way of diagrams or equations. I'm not the best at picturing long descriptions of apparatus or events, so I was lost at times. Still, for anyone interested in the subject I highly recommend the book.

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