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Behind Every Great Scientist is a Great Mentor

February 15, 2014, 10:00 AM

Michael Faraday was probably the greatest experimental scientist of the nineteenth century. Faraday came from a very, very poor family.  His father was a blacksmith.  They had 12 children.  He had no education.  And early on in his life Faraday realized that he wanted to be a scientist.  But in England at the time, in the early nineteenth century, you could not become a scientist unless you went to a university – Oxford or whatever.  So he had no hope of going to university because he came from such a poor background and had no formal education. 

He worked in a bookstore as a bookbinder, as an apprentice.  So he was around books and he was able to read about electricity and chemistry, the fields that interested him.  But all he would ever be in life would be a dilettante.  He would only be able to get his knowledge from books.  He would have no access to laboratories.  It would be a useless career and it wouldn’t lead anywhere and he would be a bookbinder his whole life.  He needed a mentor and he realized it at about the age of 18 when he went and saw a lecture from the greatest chemist of his age, a man named Humphry Davy.  Michael Faraday realized at that lecture that this man had a kind of knowledge that he could never get from a book.

And so he decided that he would somehow make Humphry Davy his mentor which was basically an impossible task or quest.  Someone from Faraday's background had no access to that kind of world.  But he went on a campaign that I detail in my book.  He wrote him letters.  He showed all of the incredible labor that he had gone through in the years of studying science on his own.  And eventually he got his chance to enter Humphry Davy’s laboratory on a certain level and prove himself.  And he got the job as his apprentice and then his career completely took off and he became the greatest experimental scientist of the nineteenth century.  But it would have never happened if he had never found the right mentor and connected himself to him.

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.


Behind Every Great Scientis...

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