The Chemical History of a Candle, by Michael Faraday, (Griffin, Bohn And Co., London, 1861), available free from Project Gutenberg in multiple e-reader formats and also from LibriVox as a free audiobook.
reviewed by Deborah Blum
"There is no better, there is no more open door by which you can enter into the study of natural philosophy than by considering the physical phenomena of a candle."
It was the above line that first caught my attention. The recognition that we often best appreciate our extraordinary natural world by seeing it through the lens of the ordinary: crystalline structure as revealed by the stitchery of winter frost, the chemical dance of light and life found in the changing colors of leaves, the hot whisper of oxygen as it sends the flame higher.
That recognition has driven much of my own science writing – the idea that we can often illuminate science through tales of the everyday. I wish I could tell you that I'd thought of it first, that it was somehow primordially my own. But, at best, I think I can claim to be carrying on a time-honored tradition. Because it's very clear that the 19th century scientist Michael Faraday was doing that and doing it exceptionally well some 150 years ago.
Here at Download the Universe, we reviewers are mostly looking toward the future - what we hope is the promise of e-books, their potential to transform the reading experience. Possibly transcend it. But I want to take this opportunity to explore another aspect of the electronic publishing world, the ability to explore our past, the free archives offered by publishers like Project Gutenberg.
Founded in 1971 by the late Michael Hart, Project Gutenberg began as a labor of love, the painstaking transfer of books in the public domain - many of them once forgotten-- into digital life. The Gutenberg website now makes 39,000 free e-books available. It also links with digital partners to provide access to another 60,000 e-manuscripts. Like Faraday's candle--to stretch that analogy a little here - it offers an open door, a brightly lit access to the words, and even the wisdom, of our past. Like no other generation, we can explore this virtual library, stumble across old chemical histories of candles and learn to think differently about our own work.
And stumble is exactly what I did.
I see you are not tired of the candle yet, or I am sure you would not be interested in the subject in the way you are.
Not that it was much of a fall. More of a sidestep. I spend a lot of my time writing about and researching the history of science, for books like The Poisoner's Handbook, my recent story of poison, murder and the invention of forensics in the early 20th century. I do so because I believe--no, really, I know--that we cannot understand who we are unless we understand how we got here. And so I was doing some research into the history of chemistry and Faraday's book almost immediately appeared in my browser.
This, I think, is the other magic wrought by on-line publishers like Project Gutenberg. You can be happily rambling through the history of chemistry (a phrase, I know, that only a geek could write) and suddenly discover that a scientist born in the close of the 18th century (1790) understood perfectly the very principles of science communication that you'd been preaching in the 21st century.
Not just any scientist, of course. This is Michael Faraday, the first Fullerian Professor of Chemistry at Britain's Royal Institution, considered by many to be one of the greatest experimentalists in the history of science. He discovered benzene, invented an early version of the Bunsen burner, identified metallic particles on the nanoscale, studied industrial pollution, investigated mining dissasters, made so many profound discoveries in the field of electromagnetism that Faraday is as beloved by those who know the history of physics as by those who follow chemistry. My fellow editor here, Jennifer Ouelette, last year wrote a tribute to Faraday, and his lessons on the candle, on her blog, Cocktail Party Physics. At the equally physics-loving blog, Skull in the Stars, you'll find this tribute to Faraday's early education into the politics of science.
Despite that, despite my respect for Faraday's scientific power and influence, I'd never been quite so much of a Faraday fan. Brilliant, yes, I thought, but judgmental, far too aware of the superiority of his own intellect. I'd formed that opinion some years earlier while writing a book about 19th century psychical research called Ghost Hunters. As you might imagine, Faraday --passionate about science, working to build the reputation of his profession--was contemptuous. People who believed in such nonsense, he said flatly, "knew nothing of the laws" of physics. The clear implication was that this was equivilant to knowing nothing.
And I suspect that Faraday, a strictly devout Christian, a passionate scientist, did feel angrily justified in dismissing believers in the hocus-pocus of spirtualism. But I realized--thanks to my Project Gutenberg discovery--that I'd been wrong to think of this as a pattern, a tendency to dismiss the general public. Because no one could possibly read a note of dismissiveness in The Chemical History of a Candle. It glows with eagerness to share science. When Faraday describes the result of treating copper with nitric acid, it's "a beautiful red vapour." When he sets a dish of whiskey and plums alight, the result is "those beautiful tongues of flame." Science makes the world understandable, he tells the reader, and it makes it gorgeous.
(Faraday delivering a Christmas Lecture (1856) Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The book is actually a collection of popular lectures that Faraday gave during the holidays for many years. Called "The Christmas Lectures", these began at the Royal Institution in 1825 and they have continued annually since. They began at a time when people were clamoring to learn more about science and they have always been aimed at a general public audience, including children. Faraday gave his first such Christmas lecture in 1827 and continued giving them intermittantly for many years. In 1861, he assembled his six lectures into this single book.
The book, then, makes many references to demonstrations and experiments that Faraday conducted during his talks, such as the examples I gave above. You can't help thinking, as you follow him through these experiments, of how dangerous some of these demonstrations were and how casually Faraday handled them. "As we advance in Chemistry," he notes, "we are obliged to deal with substances which are rather injurious." He goes on to creates chemical fires, generate enough heat to crack his glass containers, pours mercury over glowing hot wires, generates explosions --"Did you see that brilliant light?"--all with cheerful aplomb.
But what makes it more than engaging, what allows you to appreciate Faraday's genius, is the way he uses the one focal point - the lighting of a candle - to become a journey into the natural world. He begins prosaically with a discussion of the materials used to make a candle, from wax to wick. And from there we go on to the physics of how a candle burns, forming a cup of liquid wax at its top, maintaining its solid outer form. And from there into the interaction of the gases hydrogen and oxygen in the combusion of the flame. And from there into the story of the gases themselves, the way they bond to form water, the behavior of water as ice and solid, other gases, the composition of the atmosphere, the way stone such as marble contains the chemical traces of atmospheres past...Faraday lets the flame of his candle light this blaze of storytelling. And the story he has in mind is of the world around us and how it works.
And it's the real world he has in mind. The subject of combustion leads him to the subject of the release of carbon from human activities. He lists a few, from the burning of fossil fuels to the image of London, packed with people breathing in oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. "And where does all this go?" Faraday asks. "Up into the air." One hundred and fifty years ago, scientists like Faraday were not worried about global climate change. He was more interested in the exchange of carbon and oxygen between plant and animal species. But he did see this exchange as part of a fundamental ecological principle: "So are we made dependent, not merely upon our fellow creatures but upon our fellow-existers, all Nature being tied together by the laws that make one part conduce to the good of another."
It's a nineteenth century voice, of course, but it's the voice of a storyteller in any age. We're less joyful, more cautious about our research today. And, often with good reason. But Faraday can remind us of the power of untarnished love for one's work and for science itself. To that end, let me close by once more quoting him, as he says goodbye to his audience and hopes:
That you may, in your generation, be fit to compare to a candle; that you may, like it, shine as lights to those about you.
Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer-prize winning science writer and the author of five books, most recently the best-selling The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. She is a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of the blog Elemental at Wired.