Five Professional Lessons from Faraday’s Scientific Career

HE HATED HIS JOB but loved the company of the books around him. His name was Michael—Michael Faraday. Born in suburbs of London to a blacksmith, the boy was too poor to be formally educated.  Nevertheless, apprenticed to a book binder at the age of fourteen, young Faraday used the opportunity to read extensively for next seven years. He would read every book that came to him for binding and found a special adoration for science; electricity, in particular.  

As he turned twenty, Faraday got an opportunity to attend lectures of Sir Humphry Davy – the inventor of laughing gas and the most eminent British chemist of his time. He was fascinated by the lectures and scribbled furiously on his notebook as Davy addressed. Subsequently, he compiled a 300 pages book—a synthesis of what he had learnt at the binder’s shop and during the lectures—and sent it to Davy, who was fairly impressed by the youngster’s zeal towards science. 

And then came the first stroke of luck for Faraday. During one of his experiments, things went wrong for Davy and his eyesight was severely affected; he started looking for someone who could take notes for him, preferably someone who knew a little bit about chemistry.  Upon recommendation of one of his distinguished customers at the binding shop, Michael Faraday was able to join Sir Humphry Davy as an assistant a little while later. He had found his dream job. 

Lesson One: Seek to create growth opportunities even if they don’t seem to exist. Faraday had no hopes to join an educational institute ever; but he converted the book binder’s shop into a school – an alma mater that eventually got him to a position that others with proper erudition could desire but never attain.

As soon as Davy recovered his sight, Faraday was sent back to work at the binder’s shop. It seemed luck had played a trick with him. Despite his repeated letters to Davy, begging to be considered for even the most menial of scientific posts, he always received the same response that there were no openings at the Royal Institute. A couple of months went by like this. 

Eventually, in February 1813, Faraday had his final piece of good fortune. One of the laboratory assistants at the Royal Institute got involved in a public brawl and was dismissed from his post on account of misconduct.  Davy sent for Faraday and offered him the job with a good salary and accommodation along with the desired research facilities.  The poor book binder’s apprentice was on the way of becoming one of the greatest scientists of all times. 

Lesson Two: Do not lose hope if luck seems to be against you. It could be a temporary trial. Faraday was fortunate as Davy met an accident; then he felt unfortunate for being sent back to the binder’s shop; then luck favored him again as a vacancy was created at the Royal Institute due to a public brawl. Luck is an unknown, uncontrollable force; it could change direction at any time. The best you can do is to be persistent in your efforts towards your desired goals. 

Coming from humble origins and lacking formal education, Faraday was not considered a gentleman and often disdained by upper class peers. Once during a trip across Europe, Davy’s wife refused to treat him as an equal and made him eat with servants; Faraday felt so miserable that he thought of returning to England alone and giving up his scientific endeavors for good. But he stuck in for his love of science. 

In 1821, at the age of thirty, Faraday got his first major breakthrough: the first electric motor; the first device to use electric current to make a material object move. Though primitive in form, this motor was the ancestor of all the electric motors in use in the world today. It was a momentous achievement by a nearly illiterate outcast, purely by dint of his sheer diligence towards scientific pursuit. 

Lesson Three: Be prepared to face suffering in pursuit of your aims. Faraday was often humiliated in the class-based British society of nineteenth century; but he held his goals higher than himself, thought them more important than his own ego. So though he suffered, but not without a purpose. Suffering with a purpose makes it meaningful, rather enjoyable.

Faraday revered Humphry Davy as his mentor. Davy took him in as an apprentice when others scorned him as a lowly pariah. Under his mentoring, Faraday was winning laurels; but gradually Faraday’s brilliance started to overshadow Davy’s own achievements. This aroused a not so uncommon resentment between the mentor and the pupil. 

Davy was an influential aristocrat, while Faraday, irrespective of his feats, was still a blacksmith’s son. Influential Davy used his stature to snub his pupil’s work; a relentless Faraday continued his independent research in the field of electrochemistry.  It took Davy several years to overcome his insecurities. When asked what his greatest discovery was, an elderly Davy simply replied, “Michael Faraday!”  

Lesson Four: Don’t let jealousy spoil your personal and professional relationships. Sir Humphry Davy was a remarkable scientist in his own right but his student, Michael Faraday, surpassed his brilliance. Davy’s resentment took him nowhere; eventually, he had to embrace Faraday as his most promising find.  

Faraday was excellent at conducting experiments. However, lacking formal education, he did not possess the necessary mathematical skills. Though he had postulated that light is a form of electromagnetic energy, he could never validate it quantitatively. Being ill-equipped to prove his proposition, he was often ridiculed in the scientific community. 

It took another genius to show that Faraday’s extraordinary idea was in fact correct.  James Clerk Maxwell, some forty years his junior, came to the rescue of an aging, and now forgetful, Faraday. Maxwell, a Cambridge alumnus, used his mathematical prowess to prove the existence of the invisible electromagnetic fields that Faraday had intuited.

Lesson Five: Identify and accept your weaknesses; do seek help when you lack the skills. Faraday, despite his talent as an experimenter, did not possess the mathematical expertise to prove his theory. He accepted his weakness, sought help from Maxwell, and the collaboration resulted in a crucial success. 

In August 1867, Michael Faraday died at an age of 75 years. Thus ends the tale of human endeavor with an ultimate triumph—a triumph that has given us everything from electricity to modern day communication systems.

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