Michael Faraday: The Scientist’s Scientist

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Portrait of Michael Faraday, by Thomas Phillips, 1842. If I were to guess, I’d say the apparatus on the left is a battery.

Michael Faraday, as I hope to convince you by the end of this blog post, was not only the most famous scientist of the Victorian Era, but quite possibly the scientist most responsible for the technological advances that have been achieved since.  And considering his humble origins, possibly the least likely to have done so.

After reading the paragraph above, it should come as no surprise that Michael Faraday is my favorite scientist.  As an electrochemist, my work owes much–no, everything!–to the discoveries that he made. And so, it was probably inevitable that Faraday would have a cameo appearance in my steampunk adventure novels.  Little did I know when I started writing that he would end up being one of the main characters in the book that I just launched, The Secret Notebook of Michael Faraday.  While writing in the steampunk genre allows one to bend the truth a bit (as far as I know Faraday did not keep a secret lab notebook), I have endeavoured to depict Faraday for the most part truthfully.  His life is sufficiently interesting that it needs little embellishment from me.

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The Secret Notebook of Michael Faraday — Now Available!

I am happy to announce that my second book, The Secret Notebook of Michael Faraday, is now available!

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This novel is the second I’ve written in the Airship Flamel Adventures series, but is actually a prequel of my first novel, To Rule the SkiesWhen I wrote that book, I came to the realization that I was starting in the middle of Professor Nicodemus Boffin’s story.  This new book tells some of his history.  Here’s the synopsis:

Nicodemus Boffin rose from a boyhood in the ash heaps of East London to reach the pinnacles of British science when he is mentored by the great scientist, Michael Faraday. When Boffin finds a secret laboratory notebook in which Faraday has described incomprehensible experiments, Nicodemus wonders if Professor Faraday has discovered a new science, or has lost his faculties. Nicodemus’s rival, Viscount Whitehall-Barnes, seeks to gain the notebook by any means necessary to study the descriptions of a strange orange mineral with unusual properties which he believes is the alchemists’ Philosopher’s Stone. Realizing that the Viscount must never learn the secrets of the orange stone, Nicodemus takes action to keep the knowledge hidden, protect his family, and preserve the legacy of his mentor.

Besides telling the story of how Nicodemus Boffin grows from a poor but uncommonly clever boy in the slums of London to the forefront of Victorian British science, the novel features pompous aristocracy, a surprisingly capable laboratory assistant, and snarky air pirates.  Several Illustrious Personages may wander through the story as well.

The Secret Notebook of Michael Faraday is available in paperback and Kindle format at Amazon, and in many other ebook formats at Smashwords.

The Shipwreck in a Corn Field

From the always entertaining and informative website, Atlas Obscura (if you’re not already reading it, you really should be…) comes the story of a sunken steamship that was discovered in the middle of a corn field in Missouri.  How the steamboat Great White Arabia ended up in the corn field is only half the story (the Missouri River shifted course, leaving it on, or rather under, dry land).

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Some of the crockery excavated from the hold of the Arabia (Photo by Wikimedia user Johnmaxmena2).

The amazing part of the story is the amount and variety of immaculately preserved cargo found on board.  The Arabia was on its way upriver loaded with all the sundry items required for life on what must have been not too far from the American western frontier when it sank in 1856. Because the ship and its cargo has spent most of the time since underground and not underwater, they have been amazingly preserved.

The team that discovered and excavated the steamboat have opened the Arabia Steamboat Museum to display some of the 200 tons of cargo excavated before the field had to be replanted with corn. If I’m ever in that part of the country, I think it would be an extraordinarily interesting museum to explore.

Steampunk Currency

I’ve always admired countries that put figures other than national political leaders on their currency.  The UK £20 note featured the great scientist Michael Faraday for a while in the 1990s and in pre-Euro days, Galileo was on the Italian 2000 lire note. Apparently Jane Austen is scheduled to appear on a UK £10 note next year.  The closest that the US has gotten is Benjamin Franklin on our $100 bill.  While Dr. Franklin was a noted scientist of his day, he is featured on US currency because he was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.

It was not always so, however. Continue reading

Colorful Death

I ran across this graphic which describes the origins (and typical toxicity) of many materials that have been used across the centuries as dyes and pigments.  (What’s the difference between a dye and a pigment, you say?  Simply put, a dye imparts color to a substrate (cloth, hair, etc.) while a pigment consists of particles which are mixed into a carrier and coated onto a substrate (think paint.))

In any case, it’s an interesting stroll through arsenic-laced wallpaper, heavy metals, and ground-up mummies, leading to purple mauveine, the first synthetic dye, whose discovery by Joseph Perkin in 1856 started organic chemical synthesis–which itself leads to the modern pharmaceutical and chemical industries.

I hadn’t heard of the web comic before–Veritable Hokum–but it describes itself as “a comic about mostly history, maybe science, and possibly some other stuff too.”–so right up my alley.  I foresee binge reading of its archives in my near future.

The Harrison Clocks

A recent post on the Two Nerdy History Girls blog prompted me to remember the wonderful book “Longitude” by Dava Sobel chronicling the history of John Harrison and his lifelong pursuit to develop an accurate chronometer.

In 1714, the Royal Navy had a problem.  Although it was a rather simple procedure to determine the latitude of a ship at sea (by sighting angle of the the sun at noon or Polaris, the North Star, at night), it was exceedingly difficult to determine a ship’s longitude.  After several maritime disasters resulting from faulty navigation, Parliament passed the Longitude Act which offered monetary rewards for methods to determine longitude at sea.

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