Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Happy Birthday, Michael Faraday!

Today is the birthday of physicist and chemist Michael Faraday, born in Newington Butts, England in 1791. The Writer's Almanac says of him:

"He had almost no formal schooling, but he taught himself by reading books about chemistry and physics while he worked as a bookbinder's errand boy. Young Faraday got the chance to go and hear four lectures by the famous physicist Humphry Davy. Later, Davy hired him as his assistant.

"Eventually, he became one of the greatest scientists of his era, even though he never learned the complex mathematics that many people considered a necessary context for science. He made huge breakthroughs in the field of electromagnetism — he discovered magneto-electric induction, the law of electro-chemical decomposition, the magnetization of light, and diamagnetism; and he discovered benzene."

This seems like an appropriate day to repeat one of my favorite stories from Isaac Asimov's Treasury of Humor, in which Michael Faraday plays an important role.

Jones had died and gone to heaven and, as a reward for a most exemplary life, was given the grand tour. To his amazement he found that heaven was made up of many sectors, each utterly different.

He passed though the Jewish heaven where millions of people in prayer shawls sang exultantly before the Ark of the Covenant. Then there was the Catholic heaven filled with organ music and incense, where an eternal mass was celebrated in a star-high, skywide cathedral.

"Oh," said the archangelic guide, "we're ecumenical here; we have something for every taste. After all, a good man is a good man and deserves his reward whatever little difference in ritual may exist. Over there is the Moslem heaven with its houris; yonder the Buddhist heaven of contemplation and nirvana. And here -- here is rather a little curiosity."

They crossed a bridge of the firmament and entered into a scene of whitewashed simplicity in which a relatively small number of men and women were singing hymns.

The guide tiptoed past and whispered, "This is a small sect of Christians called Sandemanians. There were only a few thousand altogether. The great scientist Michael Faraday was one. You can see him there."

"Fascinating," whispered Jones. "But tell me, why are we whispering?"

"Because they mustn't hear us. They think they're the only ones here."

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