Faraday in his own words;Reviews;Science;Books;Secondary

7th May 1999 at 01:00
THE PHILOSOPHER'S TREE:Michael Faraday's life and work in his own words. Compiled by Peter Day. Institute of Physics Publishing. pound;45, paperback. pound;16.

Critics of school science textbooks often bemoan the predominance of dead white males in the historical portraits. Even authors who respond to this criticism find it hard to omit Michael Faraday. As Peter Day points out in his introduction, Faraday is an automatic selection for the top 10 of any league table of scientists.

The inventiveness of Faraday lies behind much of the practice and theory of the physics and chemistry in our national curriculum. We return to his insights and originality every time we teach about electro-magnetism, electrolysis and the properties of materials.

The great delight of this book, which marks the bicentenary of the Royal Institution, is that we meet Faraday, speaking to us in his own words. Peter Day has skilfully linked together, with the minimum of commentary, excerpts from Faraday's vivid and approachable writings. He draws on private letters, laboratory notebooks, letters to The Times and lecture scripts.

In his early years, we first find Faraday writing a "tit for tat" note to his friend Benjamin Abbot to share his excitement after making a simple battery and using it to electrolyse sulphate of magnesia.

In the next letter to Abbott he tells how he ran from his friend's home and didn't stop until he found himself in the middle of a puddle and "a quandary of thoughts respecting the heat generated by animal bodies by exercise". Despite the drenching, hisexuberance continues as his speculations run ahead of his pen.

Later we find him inventing the language of electro-chemistry in correspondence with another friend. We can be grateful he opted for cathode, anode and ion, but dropped terms such as zetode, dexiode and skaiode which he toyed with for a while.

It comes as no surprise to find that Faraday had very strong views on the art of lecturing. He started the long-running Royal Institution series of Christmas lectures for young people in 1826. Easily the most famous of the ones he presented was entitled "The Chemical History of a Candle". Peter Day gives the reader a quick tour of this famous lecture with excerpts which capture the vividness of Faraday's style.

Faraday also lectured to the cadets at the Royal Military Academy and conducted the oral exams. We meet his sterner side when he discovers that the cadets have been prompting each other on the answers to his questions. He hopes that special measures will not be necessary but makes practical suggestions for the conduct of the exam to ensure the practice stops.

Faraday had strong views about the proper place that science should occupy in the education of young people. In a Friday Evening Discourse at the Royal Institution in 1854 he said: "It (science) teaches us first by tutors and books to learn that which is already known to others, and then by the light and methods which belong to science to learn for ourselves and for others, so making a fruitful return to man in the future for that which we have obtained from the men of the past".

This is an inspiring and fascinating book. I can promise science teachers that every time they dip into it they will find stories to enrich their teaching.

Andrew Hunt is co-ordinator of the Nuffield Curriculum Projects Centre

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