Friday, September 28, 2007
Faraday has left a strange legacy. On one hand, everybody admires him both as an individual and as a scientist. A recent, affectionate biography of Faraday begins with a quote from Aldous Huxley: “Even if I could be Shakespeare, I think I should still choose to be Faraday.”
However it is unclear how many scientists nowadays are actually choosing to be like him!
Science in the modern world happens in at least four different venues. There is public science. This is academia and laboratories and institutions associated with academia. There is corporate science. This is research conducted by corporate employees with commercial goals somewhere in mind. Such research may be affiliated with public science or it may be entirely independent. There is military science. This is often ‘black budget’ research with no publications and no direct interactions with either the corporate world or academia. And there is independent science—research conducted in laboratories assembled in garages and basements and on kitchen tables (sometimes, in fact, performed in their ‘free time’ by the same scientists working away in one of the other venues).
Corporate and military research by their very nature get almost no public attention. Even with the internet, independent research is typically closely held because of fears of appropriation and patent fights.
The media, however, certainly play up public science. However, we must hope that public science is not representative of science overall because public science is about as far away from the ideals crafted by Faraday as a person could imagine.
And pretty darn unproductive.
It’s been almost two hundred years since Faraday’s rigorous experiments established basic facts about magnetism and raised intriguing questions, yet has modern research advanced those basic facts and answered those intriguing questions?
Well, even though there is endless discussion these days about ‘zero-point’ energy in the vacuum, so far as I know nobody has elucidated the structure of space in a way that explains how lines-of-force exist within ‘empty’ space.
So far as I know nobody has worked out exactly what lines-of-force consist of, although I’ve read anecdotally that researchers working with very low temperature superconductors have developed theories about lines-of-force intriguingly different from ‘accepted’ views.
So far as I know, nobody has investigated how a magnet’s lines-of-force move with a magnet if the magnet is grossly shifted from place to place, yet don’t rotate with the magnet if the magnet is rotated around its axis. Surely this has some bearing on the bizarre magnetospheres of Uranus and Neptune, which are de-coupled from their axis of rotation even though planetary magnetic fields are ‘accepted’ to result from electrical activity in a planet’s core.
Faraday conducted most of his research with material almost trivial even by nineteenth century standards. (Heck, a century earlier William Herschel was getting funds from the King of England to build his telescopes.) Faraday did his most interesting work with a magnet, some wire and a few ounces of mercury.
Nowadays scientists—scientists working in the public venue—are forever asking for particle accelerators with higher energy levels, telescopes with larger mirrors and computers with faster processors.
I wish Faraday’s practical legacy were as influential as his media legacy.