Built on Facts

#4 – Michael Faraday


One day sir, you may tax it.
- Michael Faraday, asked by the British Minister of Finance about the practical value of electricity

With Michael Faraday we begin to reach the most rarified heights of physics achievement. Faraday worked largely in the first half of the 19th century when the lines between physics and the other sciences were not as clearly drawn. Faraday blazed a trail of glory through the rapidly developing sciences of physics and chemistry.

In his early years as a scientist he built the first primitive electric motor, discovered electromagnetic induction, and mutual induction, formalized the concept with Faraday’s law, and invented the dynamo.

He pioneered the concept of lines of force and was able to develop them in such a way as to classify their interaction with materials. This was used to show how conducting materials can be used to shield objects from electric fields. Today we call these kinds of devices Faraday cages in his honor. Before Faraday the connection between electric and magnetic fields was not well understood and indeed it remained to Maxwell to finish the mathematical connection. But Faraday saw that there was a connection and he made much of the progress in connecting the previously fragmented and badly understood science of electricity and magnetism. In fact, you can make the case that he was the first to connect electromagnetism and light with his experiments with magnetic fields and polarization filters.

As a chemist he developed electrolysis and methods for liquefying gas. From a theoretical perspective he came up with the idea of oxidation numbers. If I may quote Wikipedia, he also worked on what would become nanotechnology more than a century later: “Faraday was the first to report what later came to be called metallic nanoparticles. In 1847 he discovered that the optical properties of gold colloids differed from those of the corresponding bulk metal. This was probably the first reported observation of the effects of quantum size, and might be considered to be the birth of nanoscience.”

In some ways he was the Feynman of his day. Really it might be more accurate to say Feynman was the Faraday of his day. Faraday gave a popular series of lectures to the public, and wrote a lovely popular explanation of the chemistry and physics of a candle flame, called The Chemical History of a Candle. He participated in early environmentalism and investigated water and air pollution. Even Feynman’s Challenger accident has a bit of a parallel in Faraday, who used his intellect in the investigation of an explosion in a coal mine.

You could argue that he was the greatest experimentalist of all time. I would agree with you.

The list so far (click the category name for links):
4. Faraday
5. Feynman
6. Rutherford
7. Schrodinger
8. Dirac
9. Thomson
10. Pauli

The three remaining are probably something roughly approaching obvious, but you can at least be kept in suspense by their ordering!


  1. #1 SimonG
    October 29, 2008

    I’m glad Faraday made it in. I have fond memories of watching the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, which he started. I also used to go to the Faraday Lecture, presented by the IEE (now IET) with my dad, who was an electrical engineer.

  2. #2 Johan
    October 29, 2008

    “The three remaining are probably something roughly approaching obvious, but you can at least be kept in suspense by their ordering!”

    Hmm, I think the order is pretty clear to.

  3. #3 T
    October 29, 2008

    Well. I think I know who they will be. And I think that once again Galileo has been wrongfully omitted. What did he do that was important? He was the driving force of the merging of physics with mathematics.

    It is a bit strange he is so often omitted.

  4. #4 Matt Springer
    October 29, 2008

    You shouldn’t feel too disappointed for him! Actually I gave Gallileo a special honorable mention which happens to not be shown on this list. He and Emmy Noether were certainly top ten material, but I decided that Galileo was better described as a natural philosopher and Noether as a mathematician. This is no slight on them, they were both certainly among the greatest scientists of all time.

  5. #5 Drekab
    October 30, 2008

    You should tag your honorable mention posts in the Greatest Physicists category so they can be seen easily along with the top ten list. I’m really enjoying these posts and looking forward to the top three.

  6. #6 MartinB
    October 31, 2008

    Any such list is of course highly subjective, but not having Bohr and Boltzmann on it?

  7. #7 Tim Gaede
    June 12, 2009

    Snopes.com says that the tax remark likely never occurred. I’m inclined to side with Snopes on this one.

    Anyway, the conversion of mechanical power to electrical power and vice versa had profound implications perhaps not realized by the general public.

    If you feel compelled to use one quotation attributed to Faraday, perhaps this would suffice, “Nothing is too wonderful to be true if it be consistent with the laws of nature, and in such things as these, experiment is the best test of such consistency.”

  8. #8 theOneWithoutASecond
    May 16, 2010

    Faraday is great, one of the best, for a poor and uneducated person with no education after age 13 to make as many accomplishments as Michael Faraday did is amazing

    The electric motor, transformer, and dynamo generator come from Faraday, where would technology be without Faraday?