Top Eleven: Michael Faraday

Next up in the Top Eleven is a man who is largely responsible for the fact that we have electricity to run the computer you're using to read this.

Who: Michael Faraday (1791-1867) a poor and self-educated British scientist who rose to become one of the greatest physicists of the 19th Century.

When: Around 1831.

What: Faraday's main achievement was the discovery of Faraday's Law (obviously), one of "Maxwell's Equations" describing the behavior of electric and magnetic fields (in a certain sense, Maxwell was a master of PR-- he took a bunch of equations that other people had already discovered, added one little piece, and got his name put on the whole lot...). For people who rely on electricity, Faraday's Law may be the most important of the lot: it's the law that describes how a changing magnetic flux causes an electric field.

Despite some skepticism and class prejudice (he was working at a time when science was mostly a hobby of aristocratic gentlemen), Faraday carried out a series of experiments in which he moved magnets through loops of wire, and showed that the moving magnet caused a current to flow. He also demonstrated that keeping the magnet fixed, and moving the loop of wire caused a current to flow. In order to explain all this, he more or less invented the notion of electric and magnetic fields and lines of force that we use to discuss these phenomena.

Why It's Important: It's important because the principle of induction is what we use to generate electricity. If you put a magnet inside a loop of wire and spin it, or spin a loop of wire inside a magnetic field, you generate an electric potential in the wire, and cause a current to flow. If you hook the spinning magnet or loop up to something that will keep it spinning, like a steam turbine or a water wheel, you get a continuous source of electric current. That is, a generator. Essentially all of the electric power used to run modern life is generated through an application of Faraday's Law.

He also realized that the same process works in reverse-- if you run a changing current through a loop of wire in a magnetic field, you can make it spin. So any time you use an electric motor (say, an electric toothbrush or razor), you're doubly indebted to Faraday.

Reasons to Vote for Him:: Discovered the effects that make practical electricity, and thus most of modern life, possible.

Reasons to Vote Against Him: Lingering class prejudice?

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Also, without Faraday, Maxwell would never have done *his* work. Without his "lines of force" we wouldn't have our modern notions of fields at all. And since nowadays everything is a wave in a field...

I think I vote for Faraday.

Don't forget Joseph Henry, who made the same discovery independently at about the same time. Faraday published first, so he gets his name on the Law, but Henry gets unit named after him as a consolation prize.

This experiment led to Maxwell, which led to the derivation of light speed, which led to modern physics...

Definitely my choice.

(plus, I like my electric toothbrush and my computer)

By skywalkthisway (not verified) on 16 Feb 2006 #permalink

hiyah i think hees cooleey cause he made straiteners and a hairdryer because without his law we wouldnt have any of these things!!!! yag n duorp lol

hiyah i like him a lot and i think hes kool because of the laws he discouvred i like my computer and i love physics cough cough and i also think that he is kool

Nitpick here too: It is doubtful if Faraday would have been able to understand Maxwell's equation for Faraday's Law. Faraday was a brilliant experimenter with excellent physical insight, but he was essentially ignorant of mathematics.

His lines of force were a substitute for maths.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 30 Apr 2008 #permalink