Faraday and Helmhotz Science Lectures

by Paul Mathers


“Welcome to my science lecture. Say the secret word and win $100.”

There was a period in my late teens and early twenties when I had not yet learned that the quality of my life would dramatically improve through enforcing on myself complete ignorance of what is happening on television. I watched a lot of public television in that time and while I liked their offerings, I struggled a bit with the exclusive target audience of pre-teen. Not that that age group shouldn’t be awash in a flood of education, but, rather, people of all ages should. I observed that the night offerings for adults were “informative” and “cultural.” Which I suppose is a form of “educational.”

Anyway, there was a television show called Bill Nye, The Science Guy in which Mr. Nye introduced science concepts to the pre-teen crowd. I was enthusiastic about this show because I always loved science. I have always felt that there is only one major difference between a scientist and a poet: Mathematics. I recall telling another poet about this show and he, rather grumpily, telling me that children did not actually learn anything from these shows. They were entertained by them, but they would not retain any knowledge from them. I knew that this was false, but was unable to articulate why at the time. At the very least, such entertainments could ignite an interest in a child to go to the library and learn more on their own.

I do not think it unfair to claim similarities between what Nye did and what Faraday did. They were both speaking to children (it was a little jarring to suddenly have lectures tailored to children in the middle of the Harvard Classics Library). Faraday’s lecture hall was a Rube Goldberg device in my imagining of it. The lectures are “oh look, here at what I am doing. This is what I’m doing and this is why it is happening in this manner. This is what it means. Isn’t it grand?”


He is filling iron casings with water and freezing them to make them explode. He is playing with the center of gravity with toys and simple items that you would find around the house (and likely make a tremendous mess when you go home on holiday and try to recreate). He is filling things with different gasses and either lighting them on fire or seeing if they fly.

And, if for no other reason, it was well worth reading to have learned about Prince Rupert’s Drops.

The first set of lectures are on the Forces of Matter. The second set is The Chemical History of a Candle. But did I actually learn anything? Yes. Or, rather, I had a whirlwind refresher course on Gravitation, Cohesion, Chemistry, and Magnetism.

Hermann Helmholtz’s lectures were, I gathered, aimed more toward an adult audience. His first was On The Conservation of Force. It was a fascinating lecture about mechanical physics, although it wasn’t until the end when I realized that the point of the whole thing was to show that a perpetual motion machine was impossible.

“The force of falling water can only flow down from the hills when rain and snow bring it to them. To furnish these, we must have aqueous vapour in the atmostphere, which can only be effected by the air of heat, and this heat comes from the sun. The steam engine need the fuel which the vegetable life yields, whether it be the still active life of the surrounding vegetation, or the extinct life which has produced the immense coal deposits in the depths of the earth. The forces of man and animals must be restored by nourishment; all nourishment comes ultimately from the vegetable kingdom, and leads us back to the same source.”

His second lecture is on Ice Glaciers. He spends the bulk of the lecture discussing the various properties of frozen water.

So, I’m over halfway done with this volume of natural science and, while it’s interesting and I am learning a lot, I have to say that were it not for the promise of Cellini’s Autobiography next in the series, I would probably take a break after this one.