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The Chemical History of a Candle (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

The Chemical History of a Candle (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)


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Originally given as a lecture at the Royal Institution, The Chemical History of a Candle is one of the most popular and widely distributed works of popular science ever written. A remarkably clear and beautifully organized explication of Victorian chemistry and physics, it has gone through myriad editions and translations and has been used to teach the scientific method in societies as different as the Soviet Union and modern Japan. It also provides a window into the mind and science of Michael Faraday, the greatest experimental physicist of the nineteenth century, and quite possibly of all time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780760765227
Publisher: Barnes & Noble
Publication date: 01/20/2005
Series: Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading
Pages: 144
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)


The Chemical History of a Candle is one of the most popular and widely distributed works of popular science ever written. A remarkably clear and beautifully organized explication of Victorian chemistry and physics, it has gone through myriad editions and translations and has been used to teach the scientific method in societies as different as the Soviet Union and modern Japan. It also provides a window into the mind and science of Michael Faraday, the greatest experimental physicist of the nineteenth century, and quite possibly of all time.

Michael Faraday (1791-1867) was one of the last great scientists to learn his trade through apprenticeship and self-teaching rather than formal higher education. The Chemical History of a Candle, addressed to an audience of children, was Faraday's attempt to give to young people the excitement he himself had felt over science when a young man. Faraday's was a classic "rags to (intellectual) riches" story of the type abundant in Victorian fiction although rare in reality. He was born in 1791, the third of four children of a poor Yorkshire family of Irish descent who had moved to London in hopes of finding work. The young Faraday was apprenticed to a bookbinder, where his interest in science was aroused by reading an article on electricity in a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica he was binding. Faraday nourished his new interest by joining a group of scientifically inclined young men, the City Philosophical Society, and attending the dynamic lectures of the great chemist Sir Humphry Davy at London's Royal Institution. (Faraday gave his first scientific lecture to the City Philosophical Society in 1810.) It wasthrough Davy that Faraday got the big break that enabled him to become a professional scientist. In 1813, Davy hired him as his assistant at the Royal Institution, an organization that Faraday would stay associated with throughout his long career, and in whose buildings he and his family lived for many years. It was from a laboratory in the Royal Institution that Faraday announced his first great scientific discovery, electromagnetic induction, in 1821. Faraday was the first to deliberately produce an electrical current by manipulating a magnet, a process which underlies modern electrical generation. (Faraday himself had little interest in the commercial possibilities of his discovery.) This was followed by a stream of discoveries extending over the next few decades, including the electro-optical effect and dimagnetism. Faraday's work formed the experimental foundation of nineteenth-century field theory in physics.

The Royal Institution was the venue for the lectures and demonstrations that make up The Chemical History of a Candle. Faraday's interest in presenting science to a broad audience fitted him perfectly to play a leading public role at the Institution. The Institution had been founded in 1800 for the purpose of making science more accessible to English men and women, and much of its revenue came from charging admission to scientific lectures. In the early years, Humphry Davy was its resident virtuoso showman, and following Davy's departure the Institution suffered financially from the inability of the dull, uninspired lecturers who followed him to attract large, well-paying audiences. Faraday followed in Davy's footsteps as the "star" of the Royal Institution, giving his first lecture there in 1824. He helped put the Institution back on its feet financially by founding two series of lectures in 1826: the Friday Evening Discourses, aimed at presenting contemporary science to a general adult audience; and the Christmas Lectures, aimed at children. Both series have continued to the present day, and both are represented in this volume. (The Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution are now televised. Christmas lecturers in recent decades have included Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, who like Faraday have combined careers as scientists and successful science popularizers.)

Though happily married, Faraday had no children of his own, and the Christmas Lectures provided him with a way to address a juvenile audience. Faraday gave nineteen series of Christmas lectures in his career, of which The Chemical History of a Candle was the last, given first in 1848 and then in 1860. The Chemical History of a Candle and Lectures on the Various Forces of Matter are the two series of his Christmas Lectures that were published.

Faraday learned much from observing the lectures of Davy and others, as well as his own studies of oratory. Long before he began his career as a lecturer at the Royal Institution he had developed strong opinions about what made up a good scientific lecture and how it should be delivered. As he wrote in a letter to a friend early in his scientific career:
A Lecturer should exert his utmost efforts to gain completely the mind and attention of his audience and irresistably to make them join in his ideas to the end of the subject. He should endeavour to raise their interest at the commencement of the Lecture and, by a series of imperceptible gradations unknown to the company, keep it alive as long as the subject demands it. No breaks or digressions foreign to the purpose should have a place in the circumstances of the evening; no opportunity should be allowed to the audience in which their minds could wander from the subject or return to inattention or carelessness.
Faraday believed that the ideal lecture would last about an hour, and would be given at a deliberate pace. His usual practice was not to write out his lectures, but to verbally improvise from a page or two of notes on the main topics, cross-referenced to a list of the experiments and demonstrations carried out to illustrate specific points. The six essays of Chemical History are not scripts that Faraday read from but transcriptions from notes made by shorthand experts at the lectures themselves.

Printed versions of Faraday's Christmas Lectures can only hint at what it was like to witness him in the lecture hall, but the fact that we even have printed versions at all is to be credited not to Faraday, who had little interest in publishing his lectures, but to William Crookes, editor of Chemical News, a recently founded periodical for British chemists and the chemical industry. Crookes, seeking material for his new journal, approached Faraday with the idea of publishing transcriptions of the lectures, and Faraday assented, although without much enthusiasm. His intellectual powers were weakening, and he feared that the lectures would not be of as high a quality as they had been in previous years. (Faraday cited failing health and mental powers when he resigned from the Royal Institution later in 1861.) Crookes went ahead with the project and The Chemical History of a Candle was first published in Chemical News in 1861 before appearing in book form the same year. In his introduction to another volume of Faraday's Christmas Lectures, On the Various Forces of Matter, Crookes explained how the books came to be written. "They are printed as they were spoken, verbatim et litterarim. A careful and skillful reporter took them down, and the manuscripts, as deciphered from his notes, was subsequently most carefully corrected by the Editor as regards any scientific points which were not clear to the shorthand writer." A Chemical History of a Candle gives us the voice of Faraday himself as he gave the lecture and demonstrations. The texts, however, are not merely transcripts; by giving stage directions for the actions of Faraday and his assistants as well as illustrations, they attempt to re-create the experience of hearing and witnessing Faraday's presentation.

Crookes and others admired Faraday for how well he integrated the performance of demonstration experiments into his lectures. Demonstrations added to the dramatic effect as in the third lecture of the series, when Faraday employed bursting iron vessels to demonstrate how the water inside them expanded while freezing. It was expected that a lecturer in chemistry or physics would employ exciting experiments, but few contemporaries rivaled Faraday's skill. Crookes pointed out that one reason why Faraday's talks were so successful was that the experiments were never failures, comparing a failed experiment during a demonstration to a false note from a singer. Faraday's background as an artisan helps explain his dexterity and surefootedness when dealing with equipment. He was also the author of Chemical Manipulation (1827), a treatise on chemical equipment and laboratory technique. For Faraday, demonstrations were more than illustrations of the assertions made by the lecturer. They provided the real, physical evidence of the truth of his claims. Seeing, not just hearing, was believing.

Some readers may come to a series of lectures on chemistry and physics expecting long strings of equations. They will be disappointed by The Chemical History of a Candle. Faraday's science was less quantitative than that of most of his contemporary physical scientists, and certainly much less so than chemistry and physics today. He was the last of the great physicists to be essentially untrained in mathematics, and his orientation was more visual than mathematical. This helped him communicate to persons with little mathematical knowledge, although many university-trained scientific contemporaries were frustrated by what they considered his tendency to describe rather than measure. (The turning of Faraday's experimental results into mathematical theory was the work of James Clerk Maxwell.) Faraday in turn was suspicious of mathematics, believing that too great an emphasis on mathematics led to overly abstract ways of thinking. His own science was firmly rooted in the laboratory and in things that the experimenter could see and touch.

As a lecturer, Faraday sought to arouse the wonder of his listeners, and to show how the most commonplace things could inspire it. Of course, in a society before electric lights, candles were much more common objects than they are now. The lectures included in The Chemical History of a Candle go from the specific and visible to the general, from the actual burning candle through the chemical elements to the structure of the universe. Faraday, who worked in fields that are now divided between chemistry and physics, did not consider himself primarily a physicist or a chemist, or even a "scientist" in the modern sense, a secular investigator of a material world. Instead, he considered himself a natural philosopher striving to understand the laws God had laid down for his creation for the good of all. As Faraday remarked in speaking of the complementary roles played by the respiration of plants and animals, "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." The wonder Faraday aroused in his audiences was not always limited to the material world. Some spoke of hearing Faraday lecture on science as a spiritually uplifting experience. Faraday, an Elder in the small Christian sect of the Sandemanians, claimed that his science was strictly separated from his religion. This was true in the sense that Faraday never used science to promote purely Sandemanian tenets, but in The Chemical History of a Candle and other of his works he endorsed the idea of a benevolent creating and lawgiving God, the "Author of all Things," whose goodness and power can be approached through his beautiful and useful works. Faraday adapted the English tradition of "natural theology" to show how the universe serves God's ends and how God has made the world a home to humanity.

In addition to spiritual concepts, Faraday introduced aesthetic concepts into his science. The Chemical History of a Candle is marked by frequent descriptions of the beauty of natural phenomena. Faraday's exclamations over the beauty of natural phenomena not only resonated with his own feelings-even the very aged Faraday, incapable of connected thought, could still be roused by the beauty of the experiments he had once performed-but with the sensuous approach he took to the sciences. Scientific beauty for Faraday was not a matter of mathematical elegance, but of the beauty of things and the experimental effects that could be produced from them.

By including the "Lecture on Platinum," one of Faraday's last Friday Evening Discourses at the Royal Institution, The Chemical History of a Candle provides an opportunity to contrast Faraday's style when giving a lecture to juveniles with that he employed when discussing recent scientific developments with adults. The lecture on platinum provides a more businesslike, less rhapsodic Faraday, although he still points out the beauty and elegance of platinum and the processes for fusing it. The experiments are more sedate than those in The Chemical History of a Candle, without the explosions that must have delighted his juvenile audience, but the combination of explanation and demonstration is very similar.

The Chemical History of a Candle shows to modern readers a scientist of great genius speaking of his art in language intended to be simple enough for a child to understand. The voice of Faraday we hear is passionate, endlessly curious, in love with nature, and intellectually generous.

William Burns teaches history at Morgan State University in Baltimore. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Davis, and is the author of An Age of Wonders: Prodigies, Politics and Providence in England, 1657-1727 (2002) and Science in the Enlightenment: An Encyclopedia (2003).

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The Chemical History of a Candle 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
gbsallery on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Magnificent and charming, this transcription of one of Faraday's Christmas Lecture series illustrates not just the mastery of practical skills required for a compelling demonstration, but also Faraday's skill for communicating and building enthusiasm for science. Also includes a "bonus" lecture on the fusion of platinum.A must for anyone interested in the history of science or the Royal Institution. Also recommended for all children aged 10 or so!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thank you
sodium23 More than 1 year ago
Faraday is lecturing to an audience of kids, probably all boys. He presents a series of beautiful illustrations of the scientific method. He recommends that the audience try some of his demonstrations at home. This would never happen in the super-safe kid world of today. A lecture to the Royal Society on platinum is included, perhaps because it might have been one of his last lectures, containing a sort of farewell to the Royal Society.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago