Sir John Meurig Thomas
Sir John Meurig Thomas
stepped into the Oberkotter Auditorium of Lewis Laboratory, faced an audience of rigorously educated scientists, and captivated them with reflections on an unschooled man without whom much of science today might not be possible.
Speaking with a Welsh lilt, summoning passion and wit, and drawing connections to literature and music, Thomas brought to life Michael Faraday (1791-1867), the man who discovered electromagnetic induction and has been called the father of electrochemistry. And Thomas illumined Faraday’s myriad achievements by comparing and contrasting them to those of American statesman, scientist and inventor Benjamin Franklin.
Thomas, emeritus professor of chemistry at the Davy Faraday Research Laboratory
at the Royal Institute of Great Britain, spoke Oct. 17 as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series of the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science
His one-hour talk, titled “Faraday and Franklin,” was distinguished as much by its lively vocabulary and its breadth as it was by Thomas’s obvious affection for his subjects. It is doubtful, for example, that a Lehigh audience will soon again hear nitrogen trichloride described as “capriciously explosive” or a scientist’s voluminous output referred to as “Haydnesque.”
This should not be surprising. While earning a reputation as one of the world’s premiere chemists, with catalysis being his forte, Thomas has served as vice president of Cambridge University’s Musical Society and has been honored for his service to Welsh culture. Also, 2006 marks the tricentennial of Franklin’s birth and the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s. And last April, when the American Philosophical Society celebrated the inventor’s 300th birthday, the group invited Thomas to Philadelphia to speak.
Laying the foundation for modern physics and chemistry
If Franklin was the best known and most admired man of science in the Western world in the 18th century, Thomas said, then Faraday—who was born the year after Franklin died—achieved that distinction in the 19th century.
The similarities between the two men were as numerous as the contrasts.
“Each discovered a large variety of new phenomena by doing spectacular and dangerous experiments,” Thomas said. “Each wrote hugely popular science books with nearly identical titles. Franklin’s was titled Experiments and Observations in Electricity
and Faraday’s was Experimental Researches in Electricity
“Each man believed in prudence, industry, skepticism, intellectual honesty and the sacrosanctity of evidence. And both, of course, were auto-didacts. Franklin left school at the age of 10 and at 12 was indentured to a printer, while Faraday left school at 13 and soon afterwards was apprenticed to a bookbinder.”
Faraday lacked Franklin’s publishing, civic, diplomatic and legislative skills, Thomas said, and in contrast to his predecessor’s “gregarious and effulgent” nature, the British scientist was “retiring and almost reclusive.”
And while Franklin was known to indulge his worldly passions on occasion, Faraday was a lifelong Christian who preached sermons in the Sandemanian Church, an offshoot of the Church of Scotland. His favorite Bible verse, Job 9:20, which Thomas read, stressed humility: “Though I am righteous, my own mouth shall condemn me. Though I am blameless, it shall prove me perverse.”
Franklin’s scientific accomplishments should be well-known to American students: he invented the lightning rod, bifocals, the odometer, the Franklin stove and the three-wheel clock, to name just a few, and he founded America’s first public library, the Philadelphia Fire Department and the aforementioned American Philosophical Society.
Faraday was a great admirer of Franklin, whom he often quoted. His contributions to physics, especially electro-magnetism, and to chemistry (he produced the first compounds of carbon and chlorine), said Thomas, laid the foundation for advances that are still being made two centuries later.
“Faraday liquefied a dozen new gases, including ammonia, established the formula for making benzene, pioneered organic photochemistry, became a superb analytical chemist, identified isomers of many chemical compounds, improved the optical quality of glass, developed glass fibers, pioneered the study of dielectrics, and identified the phenomenon of semiconductivity.
“The prodigality of his output was Haydnesque,” Faraday said, referring to the 18th-century composer of 104 symphonies. “The body of work he left behind has not been equaled since.”
A discovery that changed the world
It was in the arena of electricity and magnetism where Faraday left his biggest mark, Thomas said. In August 1831, in the basement of the Royal Institute of London, Faraday showed that a magnetic field could produce an electric current, expressed in “lines of force.” This principle of electromagnetic induction made possible the electric transformer and generator. Later, Faraday demonstrated electromagnetic rotation, the principle behind the electric motor. And in 1845, he discovered that magnetic force affects light and that a magnetic field rotates the plane of polarized light, a phenomenon known today as the Faraday effect.
“Faraday believed profoundly in the concept of the electromagnetic field,” Thomas said. “His discovery of the lines of force was an incredibly important achievement that changed the world.”
Faraday owed much of his success to the experiments he devised; indeed, he has often been called the world’s greatest experimentalist, Thomas said.
“Faraday believed that the experiment was the servant of the imagination, and that there was an answer to every question. His choice of problems on which to conduct experiments was astute, and he devised the best instruments to use. He demonstrated his discoveries in remarkable and often gripping ways.”
One of the most famous experiments Faraday conducted took place in 1836 inside the “Faraday cage.” To illustrate that an electric charge applied to the outside of a charged conductor would not affect anything inside the conductor, Faraday sat inside a specially built room coated with metal foil while a high-voltage discharge from a generator struck the outside of the room. His audience observed a huge flash of light from the 150,000-volt charge, Thomas said, but the scientist was not harmed.
Faraday demonstrated and discussed many of his discoveries at the Friday Evening Discourses, which he founded in 1826 for lay people, and at the Christmas Lectures, which he founded in 1827 for young people. Both continue today.
Faraday’s scientific achievements might not have come to pass, said Thomas, were it not for his skills as a bookbinder and his ability to write clear, compelling prose. While working as an apprentice, Faraday developed an avid interest in chemistry, read voraciously and attended lectures by leading scientists. A customer gave him tickets to four lectures given by Humphry Davy, the most renowned scientist of the day.
“Michael Faraday sat entranced and mesmerized by the pellucidity of Davy’s narrations,” Thomas said, “and went on to record his detailed observations into a book that he bound and sent to Davy, along with a request, which was eventually successful, for a position as Davy’s assistant.
“It was a document of Mozartian perfection, and it impressed Davy immensely.”
Thomas, who was born and educated in Wales, couldn’t help but notice that Davy expressed his gratitude to Faraday with typical English understatement in a letter that began, “I am far from displeased…”
“Only an Englishman would say that—not a Welshman or an Irishman or a Scotsman.”