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No. 905:
Maxwell and Faraday

Today, James Clerk Maxwell finds out what Michael Faraday had seen. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Maxwell set the theoretical foundations of electric field theory in 1873. He says at the outset of his treatise, "Before I began the study of electricity I resolved to read no mathematics on the subject until I had first read [Faraday]."

That's an innocent enough remark until you follow it through. You see, Faraday's pioneering work had made little sense to mathematicians. So Maxwell, a great mathematician himself, systematically went back and climbed inside Faraday' s head. There he found a great garden of delights. Here's what he said about the experience:

I found that ... Faraday's methods ... begin with the whole and arrive at the parts by analysis, while the ordinary mathematical methods were founded on the principle of beginning with the parts and building up the whole by synthesis.

Faraday and Maxwell were two of the brightest people of the 19th century. Faraday was virtually uneducated, but he had an ace up his sleeve. Thomas West, who writes on dyslexia, points out that Faraday showed a full set of typical symptoms. He had terrible trouble with spelling and punctuation. His memory played tricks on him. He couldn't handle mathematics.

He had one more typical dyslexic trait: a powerful visual sense. He forged a finished image in his mind's eye, then he broke that image down into parts that people could understand. Maxwell tells us that Faraday built a mental picture of lines of force, filling space, shaping themselves into lovely arrays.

Nothing about Michael Faraday's life matched our aggressive images of Victorian science. He belonged to an obscure and very gentle religious sect. Science was pleasure and it was worship. He was plain-spoken, but he electrified audiences with a simple passion for what he was doing.

Faraday drives his biographers crazy with the seeming irrationality of his thought processes. How can you start with the finished skyscraper, then build the foundation below it?

Now I run my eye over Maxwell's book on field theory. He converted Faraday's vision of force fields into mathematical language. Then he plotted the equations. They form wild graceful spider webs. And we see at last what Faraday had seen first.

I talk with parents of dyslexic children. I see the crease of worry -- of fear. I tell them, your child is blessed with an edge that other children don't have. Maybe it's Faraday's holistic vision. Maybe it's verbal retention. But it's there, and it's something the rest of us don't have.

Remember, it finally took Maxwell to translate Faraday's second sight. Only when he did could it display its lovely surrealistic graphical form so the rest of us could see it, as well.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

West, T.G., In the Mind's Eye: Visual Thinkers, Gifted People With Learning Difficulties, Computer Images, and the Ironies of Creativity. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1991.

Maxwell, J.C., A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1873. For more on Faraday, see Episodes 741744101110461067, and 1268.


Maxwell's graph of a magnetic field surrounding two cylindrical magnets
Image courtesy of Special Collections, UH Library

Maxwell's graph of a magnetic field surrounding two cylindrical magnets