Episode 9 – Michael Faraday versus Albert Einstein

Today’s battle is kind of in my wheelhouse. In my real job, I am what might be termed a scientist in the medical field. The two men we will discuss today are my idols. First will be the bookbinder from England, the self-taught Michael Faraday against the person many feel was one of the smartest people to ever live, Albert Einstein.

Michael Faraday
Michael Faraday

Of the two contestants one, Michael Faraday is probably the least known but is, in the scientific community where he is viewed with awe. His opponent in this battle had a picture of him on his desk along with Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell.

 The accomplishments this man made if he was trained in the field of science would put him on the top of the list of greatest men of all time but the fact that he was self-taught, for the most part, makes his place in history even more remarkable. Of Faraday, physicist Ernest Rutherford, no slouch himself, said: “When we consider the magnitude and extent of his discoveries and their influence on the progress of science and industry, there is no honor too great to pay to the memory of Faraday, one of the greatest scientists of all time.”

So, what is the story with Michael Faraday? Born on September 22, 1791, in Newington, Surrey, in what is now known as the London borough of Southwark, to a poor family, Michael was the third of four children. His father, James, was often ill and unable to work which made life hard for the family with food sometimes hard to come by.

They were a deeply religious family, belonging to a Christian sect known as the Sandemanians. This fundamentalist group would be the backbone of why Faraday became the great scientist that he was. 

His education as a young boy could only be defined as rudimentary as he just learned how to read and write. It was when he was 14 that he began to learn about science as an apprentice to a bookbinder. While the other boys just learned how to rebind books, Michael wanted to read them. One article from the third edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica intrigued the young boy. From it, he created a rudimentary electrostatic generator along with trying out some simple scientific experiments. He was hooked on science.

It has been said that Michael’s lack of formal education and being self-taught is what made him the great experimental genius as he did not have his curiosity taught out of him. Joel Henry Hildebrand, an American educator, and chemist said this, “How fortunate for civilization the Beethoven, Michelangelo, Galileo and Faraday were not required by law to attend schools where their total personalities would have been operated upon to make them learn acceptable ways of participating as members of the group.” 

Faraday’s big break came when he was offered a ticket to a lecture given by Sir Humphrey Davy at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London. He was spellbound and took copious notes. He shared a bound copy of the notes with Davy and asked if he could work for him. At the time, there were no openings, but eventually, after the dismissal of one of the assistants, Davy hired Faraday in 1813 when he was 22.

Davy had been injured in an accident involving trichloramine which damaged his eyes, so he needed someone to help him. When Humphrey Davy went on a trip around Europe, his valet refused to go, so Faraday stepped in. It was a humiliating trip as Michael was forced to stay in servant’s quarters and eat with the help, but he was able to learn from the great scientists throughout the continent in the two year trip.

In 1821, Faraday married Sarah Barnard through the Sandemanian Church.  They would be together until his death in 1867. They would not have any children.

By now, Faraday, who had left Davy in 1820, was considered a stellar bench chemist. His first discovery was in producing compounds of carbon and chlorine. He isolated the critical petrochemical benzene shortly after that. From here he created the bedrock sciences of metallurgy and metallography. But it doesn’t stop there. He significantly improved optical glass for telescopes. From this, he created the field of dimagnetism. The winner of the 1902 Nobel Prize in Physics, Peter Zeeman credited Faraday for his breakthrough work.

Faraday is also credited with making the first Bunsen Burner a mainstay in labs and science classes around the world. He discovered the laws of electrolysis and was responsible for the popularizing the terms anode, cathode, electrode and ion. If this is all that he did, he would have been at the top of the pantheon of scientists, but these are not the things he is most known for. Faraday’s is really known for his work on electricity and magnetism. 

In 1831 he built something that is known as the Faraday disk which was the first known electric generator. Electric generators have changed our world as much as any discovery since the wheel. 

One of his next discoveries, in 1836, is also named after him, the Faraday cage. They are commonly used to protect electronic equipment from radio interference. Its implications would carry on to today’s world of computers and the internet.

All while he was inventing all of these things, he was lecturing just as his mentor Humphrey Davy had. 

What we have to understand is that when Faraday was doing all of this work, electricity was thought of a material fluid. He never bought into it which is why he was able to make so many critical breakthroughs that other men were incapable of. 

I could go on and on about the other incredible discoveries he made, but that would take hours and hours. What I do want to share is how much his work changed the world forever. Others would have made these discoveries in time, but he did them in his brief lifetime, some 75 years. He jump-started the electric age. Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla? Without Faraday, many of there inventions might never have happened without Michael Faraday. The fact that you are listening to this podcast, on the internet, is because we had Michael Faraday.

His work on electrodes and the electrolytic cell to me is one of his greatest contributions to biology and has had a significant influence on my career. The cell is basically an electric engine so to say. Electrolytes are key factors in life itself. Faraday showed us that even if he didn’t directly say it. My own company, KTS Products, produces an electrolyte powder that is used worldwide and I owe it in part to Michael Faraday.

One of Faraday’s weaknesses was the lack of formal mathematical education. James Clerk Maxwell would take his work and build the mathematical formulas that would vault the world into a new era of technological growth.

Toward his last years, from about 1855 to 1867 when he died, Faraday suffered from senility. 

There is one other thing about Michael that makes me in awe of him, and that was his humility. This man knew he had fundamentally changed mankind’s conception of physical reality, yet he turned down an offer of a knighthood from Queen Victoria saying that he wanted to remain plain old Mr. Faraday to the end.

There are approximately eleven mechanical, electrical and chemical things that Faraday has named for him. From the aforementioned Faraday cage to the Faraday constant, cup, laws of electrolysis, wheel, and wave. The world became a vastly different place because of him. 

Now for the segment on Putting things into Perspective. 

During Faraday’s lifetime 

We have the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the emergence of the United States of America as a world player and their Civil War, the invention of photography and telegraphs and the publication of The Communist Manifesto.

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein

Next up is the theoretical physicist from Ulm, Germany, Albert Einstein. From his time working in the patent office in Bern, Switzerland in 1902 to 1909 until his death at the age of 76 in Princeton, New Jersey, Einstein published more than 300 scientific papers that would transform the world. Most people know him best for his revolutionary equation, E=mc2. 

Born on March 14, 1879, to Hermann and Pauline Einstein, the family moved around a number of times from Ulm to Munich then to Milan and Pavia due to financial issues. The family business, Elekrotechnische Fabrik J. Einstein and Cie failed due to the inability to convert their machinery from DC to AC. 

His early childhood has one myth that I would like to throw out the window right away, and that is the one that says that young Albert was a poor student. That is hogwash. What is true is that he railed against the strict rote learning methods of the schools he attended. Also, there have been suggestions that he had speech impediments.

Einstein was a genius in math and physics from a very early age. He was able to breeze through geometry at 12 as well as developing his own novel proof of the Pythagorean theorem. Albert blew away his instructors with the ease of which he understood math. His early instructor was Max Talmud who was a Polish medical student who introduced Albert to a children’s science book that supposedly inspired him to think about the nature of light. It is from this inspiration that caused the now teenage Einstein to write his first paper, “The Investigation of the State of Ether in Magnetic Fields.”

Even though Albert had dropped out of high school, he was admitted to the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich, Switzerland due to his test scores in math and physics at the age of 16. He would renounce his German citizenship and became a Swiss citizen in 1896, in part to avoid military service.

While at the school Einstein would meet his future wife, Mileva Maric. They married in September 1903, but there is evidence that they had a daughter in 1902 whose name and fate are unknown. They would have two other children, both boy, Hans, and Eduard.

The marriage was not a loving one as Albert still yearned for his first love, Marie Winteler, the daughter of the family he stayed with while studying at the Argovian cantonal school in Aarau, Switzerland in 1895 and 96. This led to the eventual divorce in 1919 after they were apart for over five years. He would quickly marry his second wife Elsa Lowenthal who died in 1936 after they emigrated to the United States.

For a short period at the turn of the century, Einstein had his most frustrating period working at the patent office. He was trying to no avail to get a teaching post at a university. In 1905, he was granted his Ph.D. with his thesis being “A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions“.

The year 1905 is considered to be Einstein’s annus mirabilis or miracle year. Here is where the world gets to know of his incredible genius. He published four papers, one on the photoelectric effect where he hypothesized that energy consisted of discrete packets or quanta which contradicted James Clerk Maxwell’s theory. 

The next paper was on Brownian motion entitled “On the motion of Small Particles Suspended in a Stationary Liquid, as Required by the Molecular Kinetic Theory of Heat.” Okay, so I’m going to pass over explaining this one as its nowhere near my scientific wheelhouse. Whew.

Here is where we come to the paper, Einstein’s third of the year, published on September 26th which we begin to see his real genius, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” better known as Einstein’s Theory Special Relativity. 

In this theory, Albert reconciles Newtonian mechanics with James Clerk Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism based on Michael Faraday’s work. It is also where Einstein claims that the speed of light in a vacuum is the same for all observers, regardless of the motion of the light source. Basically, the speed of light is a constant.

Then we have the monumental paper, published on November 21st in the Annals of Physics entitled “Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content.” This is where Einstein puts to paper his most famous equation, E=mc2.

From this simple little mathematical equation, mankind was given the gift of near immeasurable power, for the benefit of mankind in nuclear power plants and the destruction of all of mankind by its own hand, the thermonuclear bomb.

In 1921, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, but not for the general theory of relativity because many still doubted its validity. It was given “for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.”

Einstein was now a global superstar. He would travel the world lecturing at universities and meet the leaders of numerous countries. Albert Einstein was a scientific celebrity of the first order. But all was not well in the world of this genius.

In Germany, we have the rise of Adolf Hitler and his anti-Jewish rhetoric. While on his trip, Einstein knew he could not return to Germany as they even had put a price on his head. In 1933 he surrendered his passport at the German consulate in Antwerp, Belgium. The Nazi’s, he learned, has taken his sailboat and his cottage. 

The British and the Americans wanted Einstein to come to their country along with the Turks. In 1935, he applied for American citizenship and settled in as a resident scholar at Princeton University in New Jersey.

Over the next twenty years, he would work at the university as well as being outspoken on issues like civil rights and the Zionist movement to develop a Jewish homeland. He was even offered the ceremonial position of the President of Israel in 1952 after the death of Chaim Weizmann.

In 1955, Albert Einstein, suffering from internal bleeding due to an abdominal aortic aneurysm passed away. He refused surgery which likely would have saved his life when he said, “I want to go when I want. It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share; it is time to go. I will do it elegantly.” So, ended the life of one of the greatest geniuses of all time.

Now its time to get to the scoring.

We begin with how they affected their country for the better. With Michael Faraday, he helped Great Britain move ahead of the rest of the world in relationship to the Industrial Revolution, which will be one of the contestants in the Historical Events bracket. Einstein had a far lesser effect on his adopted country, the United States, with a significant contribution being his famous equation, E=mc2, ushering in the nuclear age. In this category, I am going to give Faraday the edge just because of the breadth of his discoveries and the tremendous impact they had on his home country. Forty points to Faraday, 35 to Einstein.

Next up their lasting effect on world history. Again, we have Faraday and his foundational discoveries on electromagnetism which, as I have gone over, influences everything in our lives from computers to electric light and beyond. Einstein ushered in a new era in physics which in the long run, many years after those of us listening to the podcast are long gone, may have a far more significant impact than Faraday, but for the here and know, Michael gets the edge, 25 to 20.

Next up is the twenty points for their effect on the rest of the world in their time. Again we have Faraday gaining an advantage because of how his discoveries impacted the world around him while he was still alive. Einstein seems to have a longer-term impact which we are still uncovering, so I’m giving Faraday another five-point win, 20 to 15.

Finally, how long they were a scientist/scholar. Faraday’s career went from 1815 when he returned from his European trip with Sir Humphrey Davy in 1858 when he retires at his home in Hampton Court in Middlesex. This gives a total of 43 years. As for Albert Einstein, I give his start date as 1905, the annus mirabilis with his death in 1955 giving him the slight edge of 50 years. Here I present Einstein 15 points and Faraday 12. 

Final totals give Michael Faraday 97 points to Albert Einstein 85. Michael Faraday moves on to face the winner of the battle between …… Aristotle and Oliver Cromwell. 

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