Yesterday David Colquhoun send me this on Twitter:
— David Colquhoun (@david_colquhoun) June 8, 2012
I had a look at the article and decided that it would take a bit too much time and space to add my thoughts on this to a comment stream really focusing on Vice Chancellors at UCL, so I’ll do it here.
Among his comments, David had written: “A lot of those who have commented here are obsessed with idea that taxpayers’ money should not be spent on education or research. I expect if “Pete”, “Anon” and “Sean” had lived in the days of Michael Faraday, they would have told him to stop wasting time playing with wires and coils, and told him to do something really useful, like inventing better leather washers for steam engines.”
One reply suggested that Faraday was doing applied research – leading to electric motors – suggesting that “Industry today would have no problems in supporting Faraday as whatever did had immediate applications“. David responded that the applications were not obvious “at the time [Faraday] was playing with wires and coils“, since the electric motor was 40 years off. Again, in response, it was suggested that Faraday “was a person who was interested scientific applications , and was not merely interested dong it for its own sake“.
Further down, another commenter, John Dainton, added “The Royal Institution employed Michael Faraday to improve the quality of optical glass. He asked to leave to study some questions that interested him concerning electricity and magnetism (presumably because he was interested in understanding what electricity and magnetism were all about?). Without Faraday’s individual curiosity, no-one would have been able to invent the electric motor, in industry or indeed anywhere“, before going on to name and describe the curiosity-driven or authority-ignoring work of other heroes: James Lovelock, George Gray, Alec Gambling, Max Perutz, John Kendre and Tim Berners Lee.
Anyone else who’s interested can comment on this argument as they wish. I’ll stick with Faraday.
It is hard to think of anyone more closely linked to the idea that scientific work would lead to practical applications. The Royal Institution, which dominated Faraday’s working life, was founded on such an idea: for “diffusing the knowledge, and facilitating the general introduction, of useful mechanical inventions and improvements; and for teaching, by courses of philosophical lectures and experiments, the application of science to the common purposes of life“. On the agenda were topics like tanning, brewing, fertilisers, analysis of foodstuffs etc. Educating people to understand the importance and usefulness of science was also practical, applied work.
At the RI, as correctly pointed out above, Faraday was employed on eminently practical work to develop better optical glass (for, in fact, a Board of Longitude and Royal Society committee). He didn’t particularly enjoy this task but, like Davy, his day-to-day work was also to include carrying out chemical analysis for private individuals, companies, including the East India Company, and advising government, the Admiralty, Trinity House and more.
Work on electricity and magnetism was not separate to this. Davy, of course, pioneered the use of electricity in chemical analysis, and, unsuccessfully, applied his scientific knowledge in recommending to the Admiralty the use of copper sheeting on ships to prevent corrosion by sea water. Faraday did the follow-up analysis, he also made recommendations about the possibilities and practicalities of electrifying lighthouses and bouys (from the 1840s) and in making and laying telegraph cables. Finding a new way to generate, and sustain, electric power, and to understand its relationship with magnetic attraction, was never going to be seen as merely curious. Applications for electricity had been found or imagined since the 18th century, and everyone, Faraday included, would have assumed that any discoveries or workable theories in this field would be very useful indeed.
As I wrote some time ago in my post about the history of ‘pure’ science, it was during Faraday’s career that the claim that speculative scientific work should be supported by government because it would, someday, have practical pay-offs took root, even if it was only really acted on in the later 20th century. Such a claim was, undoubtedly, possible and meaningful in part because of the successes of Faraday’s career in linking his science with practical applications. The need for scientific workers and their funders to know likely or possible ‘impact’ or work being done is, over history, much more the norm than the notion that scientists can’t or shouldn’t consider the applications of their work.
Faraday was deeply embedded in a culture – in his nation, his time and his institution – that said science should be supported because it was useful. None of this is to say that he was not curious, that his curiosity did not drive him to new experiments, nor that he did not appreciate the beauty of the physical world. Faraday was, perhaps, most deeply motivated by his religious belief and his sense that he was making discoveries about God’s creation. However, he undoubtedly also believed that God had given man the ability to make sense of his creation not just in order to worship, but also to benefit humankind.
So, I must respectfully disagree with David on the matter of Faraday’s fiddling with wires and coils. No industrialist, business entrepreneur or Vice Chancellor, would have told him to stop, even if they would also like him to continue with a whole range of other activities and advising roles at the same time.