Saturday, June 10, 2006

"Oh, to live always in it!"

A few years ago, when I was in England for Walking Zero, we lived within a short walk of London's Highgate Cemetery. I can't imagine that there is another cemetery in the world where are interred more famous people. The grave to which I made special pilgrimage was that of Michael Faraday, the great 19th-century electromagnetic experimentalist and a man of inexhaustible childlike wonder. He laid the foundations for our electric civilization, but never lost his delight in discovering the secrets of nature. "Nothing," he famously said, "is too wonderful to be true."

But everything wonderful need not be true. At the time of Faraday's 1853 Christmas lecture to children, England was in obsessed with spiritualist and pseudoscientific fads. "Oh, how wonderful!" people no doubt exclaimed when a table levitated at a seance. Faraday cautioned the youngsters:
Study science with earnestness -- search into nature -- elicit the truth -- reason on it, and reject all which will not stand the closest investigation. Keep your imagination within bounds, taking heed lest it run away with your judgment. Above all, let me warn you young ones of the danger of being led away by the superstitions which at this day of boasted progress are a disgrace to the age, and which afford astonishing proofs of the vast floods of ignorance overwhelming and desolating the highest places.
(Quoted in Alan Hirshfeld's The Electric Life of Michael Faraday.)