Inducing Discovery: The Experimental Life of Michael Faraday

Sunday, August 30, 2009
Freshman Convocation 2009

Welcome MIT class of 2013! I extend the warmest possible welcome, also, to the families and friends of our new MIT students, who have traveled here to help launch their new intellectual adventure. This gathering to start the year is known as “convocation,” from the Latin for “calling together.” As you’ll soon discover, however, MIT’s culture is highly distributed, a vibrant community of interwoven communities, and since everyone here is on a mission, it can be hard to get them to pause. So it is not very often that we can call people together on a large scale, as we do today. Yet the truth is that MIT itself represents a remarkable “calling together” of scientific, technological and analytical talent, and this morning I will highlight a very few of the many ways you might engage with it. Your engagement here links you to the future and to the past along exciting and, to my mind, enormously inspiring directions.

Here in the great embrace of Killian Court, we are joined by some figures whose names and titles do not appear in today’s program. If you look up at the frieze on the buildings nearest the river, you will see a carved band of names – undisputed pioneers of science and philosophy; mathematics and medicine; architecture, art and engineering. Aristotle and Archimedes. Newton and Franklin. Darwin and Pasteur. When Isaac Newton was asked how he saw so much farther than others, he famously answered that he “stood on the shoulders of giants.” His giants, and many who came after him, live on here. Towering there, those names may seem abstract and intimidating. For many of them, you will instantly know some of their contributions. The identity of a few of those in smaller letters may elude you. The list was assembled in 1916, when MIT moved from Boston to this Cambridge campus. It was compiled by then-President Richard Maclaurin, who asked the faculty and members of the MIT Corporation to submit the seminal names in their fields. That history means several things: all of those on the frieze are decidedly dead and none represent the 20th century’s remarkable contributions. The list is further incomplete, in its exclusion of those not white, Western and male. With all the important names neglected here, you could line another stately courtyard. But if these names feel dead and distant, it is important to remember that they once belonged to young people very much like you: precise thinkers capable of prodigious hard work, incurably curious, absolutely unable to resist a challenge and determined to make a difference in the world.

Let me bring one of these giants down from the frieze to show you what I mean. Michael Faraday’s name looks down from Building 3, now home to the Department of Mechanical Engineering. You probably learned about Faraday when you studied electromagnetic induction, and you would all probably recognize the equation describing “Faraday’s law.” You can even see it on t-shirts around MIT. But let me focus a bit on Faraday himself. Born in 1791 and raised in a desperately poor London slum, Michael Faraday occupied a universe very distant from the experience of most of us at MIT. Beyond the basics of reading and “ciphering,” he received almost no formal education. Too slight in stature to be a blacksmith like his father, starting at age 14, Faraday spent seven years learning the trade of bookbinding, educating himself by voraciously reading books that passed through the shop. He read widely, but scientific texts held a particular fascination for him, and with the encouragement of his bookbinder mentor, George Riebau, in his after work hours he constructed small scientific apparatus to perform experiments. Perhaps most strikingly – as astonishing to us as to his contemporaries, who were heirs to a Newtonian, mathematical, approach to science – Faraday was, essentially, a stranger to higher mathematics. The equations that capture his discoveries emerged only through the work of James Clerk Maxwell. Paradoxically, with Faraday’s preparation at age 17, he would have had a very hard time earning a place beside you at MIT. Yet in important ways, Michael Faraday’s discoveries made possible much of what we do here, and he approached his work in ways that I can only describe as “very MIT.”

Let me talk about several aspects of his life and character that resonate deeply across this campus and that have implications for your life at MIT. First, Faraday was a fearless, untiring experimentalist, the greatest of his age and among the greatest of any other. Despite his lack of formal education, Faraday felt such passion for science that, straining above his humble circumstances, he petitioned the greatest British chemist of the day, Sir Humphrey Davy of London’s Royal Institution, for a job in his laboratory. Thanks to several lucky twists of fate, Faraday spent most of his 20s as Davy’s chief scientific assistant. No doubt he learned a great deal from watching Davy, but he perfected his superbly precise and elegantly inventive experimental method on his own. Faraday was intrigued by theory, but he loved experiment. As he put it, “I was never able to make a fact my own without seeing it …. How terrified I should be to set about learning science from books only.”i

In his experiments, Faraday followed his curiosity all across the scientific landscape. In his day, the first half of the 19th century, the walls that define the modern scientific disciplines had not yet been erected; Faraday and his peers were called “natural philosophers.” In today’s terminology, we might call him a chemist, or a physicist, or an electrical engineer, or all three, and still fail to capture his unbounded curiosity. A similar untamed thirst for knowledge without regard to disciplines inspires a great many people at MIT. Today, more than 60% of the MIT faculty are associated not only with their home academic departments, but with one or more of our research labs and centers, MIT’s signature avenue to interdisciplinary research. One-third of our close to 400 engineering faculty are doing work that engages the life sciences. And 14% of undergraduates major in more than one field, and many more are likely to do so with the recent introduction of double majors. Today, many of the most interesting problems are springing up at the intersections between disciplines – a gratifying echo of Faraday’s roving curiosity.

When the theories of his own day failed to satisfy Faraday, for example, the idea that magnetism between objects was an instantaneous “action at a distance,” he struck out on his own, in search of a better explanation through experiment. He was always ready to let unruly facts dethrone the accepted wisdom, a habit of independent thinking that repeatedly put him at odds with Europe’s leading scientific minds. More often than not, Faraday was right. Through the brilliant design of his experiments, his raw perseverance, his unlimited curiosity and independence of mind, he produced, as we all know, results worthy of several scientific lifetimes: He was the first to induce an electric current from a magnetic field. He invented both the electric motor and dynamo – unleashing the power of modern industrial society. He proved that electricity is a single force, whether it comes from a battery, a magnet or the fur of a cat in winter. He proved that, as he said, “chemical affinity and electricity are but different names for the same power.ii He also discovered several new organic compounds, including benzene, and was the first to describe the behavior of metallic nanoparticles, paving the way for nanotechnology today.

Even at the height of his professional success, Faraday retained an almost inconceivable humility about the limits of his knowledge; ultimately, that inner sense of what he called his “deficiency”iii drove him to learn more about chemistry than perhaps anyone else then alive. He achieved his phenomenal self-education by being deeply engaged at the very frontier of contemporary scientific research. Certainly, we cannot all be Faradays. But as students at MIT, you can all experience frontier-breaking research through our Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, or UROP. By graduation, more than 80% of MIT students seize this chance to work side by side with our faculty, and I strongly encourage you to do the same, as early in your time at MIT as possible.

The second striking aspect of Faraday’s life is that he took it upon himself to become a wonderful teacher. At a time when the phenomena of nature seemed to most people more or less like magic, London high society in the 1820s thirsted for the knowledge of “natural philosophy,” or at least for entertaining lectures on new discoveries. By 1825, Faraday had been named director of the laboratory at the Royal Institution. To stabilize its disastrous finances, he launched two series of paid public lectures, his “Friday Evening Discourses” for adults, and the “Christmas Lectures” for children, in which he broke open the mysteries of ordinary physical phenomena and used everyday examples, most famously, the burning of a candle, to illuminate the great principles of science. He crafted thoughtful, beautifully organized lectures that would have been YouTube-ready: He burst iron bottles with freezing water, exploded a hydrogen balloon with an electric spark, and made his hair stand on end with electric charge.

Such lectures would surely have been memorable, and were apparently good enough to write home about. Here is part of a letter from a young American scientist visiting London in 1832. As he wrote to his older brother back in America:iv

Faraday is at present on electricity at the Royal Institution. Yesterday he was melting metals, etc., by the most powerful battery I ever beheld, with two enormous machines in full action. Three days ago it was electrical light, and a more successful and splendid series of experiments could not be performed by anyone. Faraday's style of lecturing and experimenting reminds one of Paganini's playing: so easy, so adroit, so much execution. When I listen to his fluent and eloquent delivery, my thoughts wander home to you, William; and with tenderness and with a sweet pride I think of the greater powers possessed by my own dear brother. Yes, William, I have already heard several lecturers, reputed among the best in Europe, and I will vouch for it that with equal aids you shall outshine them all.

Thirty years later, that gifted brother William – William Barton Rogers – would go on to found MIT. As you will all soon discover, the great privilege of an MIT education is the opportunity to hear, talk with and work alongside the remarkable members of our faculty, among the most invigorating minds any of us will ever meet. Some have Faraday’s flair for the spectacular lecture; some teach in less explosive ways. Yet whether they teach engineering, economics or English; astrophysics or architecture or art, they are all masters of their disciplines. They have each cut a path to the frontier of their fields. The students who get the most out of their MIT education have come to know well at least one member of the faculty; I urge you to make that one of your goals for your first year at MIT.

Let me touch on one final aspect of Faraday’s life: his long record of public service. As a young man, Faraday helped his mentor, Sir Humphrey Davy, devise a coal miners lamp that reduced the risk of triggering mine explosions. Later, at the request of the British government, Faraday spent years working to improve the refracting glass for telescopes and other optical equipment. Throughout his career he produced highly practical research on dozens of questions, from how to conserve artifacts in the British Museum to how to prevent dry rot in ships.

A commitment to tackling humanity’s great practical challenges also defines MIT. That spirit thrives here in many realms. The MIT Energy Initiative aims to invent the technologies and shape the policies that will lead to a low-carbon future, while the Computer Science and AI Lab shapes the gleaming cloud of our shared digital future. Together, MIT scientists and engineers are inventing new strategies against terrible diseases, from autism and Alzheimer’s to cancer and AIDS. Our architects and planners are designing tomorrow’s green cities, while researchers at the Sloan School test new models for sustainable business. Economists and engineers are creating innovative ways to tackle the challenges of life in the developing world, from the Jameel Poverty Action Lab to the deliberately low-tech IDEAS Competition. Finally, of course, the remarkable, fundamental work of discovery that does not translate into obvious practical outcomes represents an enduring and critically important service to humankind.

Public service is much on my mind, underscored by yesterday’s farewell to Senator Edward Kennedy. In his eulogy, President Obama reflected on our responsibility and exhorted us to, “… strive at all costs to make a better world, so that someday, if we are blessed with the chance to look back on our time here, we can know that we spent it well; that we made a difference; that our fleeting presence had a lasting impact on the lives of other human beings.” I truly believe that the skills and knowledge we share as members of this uncommon community come with a responsibility to use them for the public good, and I hope you feel the same way.

As an experimentalist, as a teacher, as a servant of the public interest, Faraday’s impact in his own day was enormous, and the links that he added to the great chain of discovery connect to work at MIT every day. Thanks to Faraday, we have electronics, microwaves and lasers. Thanks to Faraday’s law, Professor Carol Livermore in mechanical engineering is developing micron-sized electric power generators that may some day replace batteries for energy storage. Thanks to Faraday’s studies of electrolysis, chemistry professor Daniel Nocera identified a new catalyst to split water for energy storage. Thanks to Faraday, physics professor Marin Soljacic developed a system of wireless recharging of electronic devices. In effect, without Faraday, we would be powerless. Let us remember that he is united with us not only by what he achieved, but by how he achieved it: his fascination with nature and his endless capacity for good, old-fashioned hard work; his daring intellectual leaps and painstaking experimentation; his patient attention and impatient creativity; his irrepressible desire to help others see as clearly as he did, and to use his knowledge for the good of all.

Five years ago, I was a newcomer here myself, and I felt lucky to join this remarkable community. After enduring the modern admissions process, you probably feel lucky to be here, too. But let me be very clear: it is also our great good fortune that you chose to come to MIT. Finding the truth is hard work; so is inventing the future. We need all of your patient attention and impatient creativity, as together we tackle the great shared problems of humankind. So thank you for joining us at MIT. As Michael Faraday used to say at the conclusion of his Christmas Lectures, I “wish that you may, in your generation, be fit to compare to a candle; that you may, like it, shine as lights to those about you.v With those timeless words, I welcome you to MIT!

i Alan Hirshfeld, The Electric Life of Michael Faraday (Walker and Company Publishing, New York, 2006), 20.

ii Ibid., 136.

iii Ibid., xii.

iv Life and Letters of William Barton Rogers, eds. Emma Savage Rogers with William T. Sedgewick (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company. The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1896), 96.

v Peter Day, comp., The Philosopher’s Tree: A Selection of Michael Faraday’s Writings, (Institute of Physics Publishing, London, 1999), 153.