I was really impressed with this dude from the 19th century who was profiled on the new Cosmos program last week. I always thought the great lights of physics were two: Newton and Einstein. But in between, there was Michael Faraday. His experimental work on electromagnetism opened up the universe for Einstein’s theories of relativity.
The list of understandings and inventions we take for granted (electrical motors in particular) is very long (see more over at his Wikipedia article).
The most interesting part of his story for me, though, is how he worked given the challenges he faced (abject poverty, lack of formal education). Persistence through repeated failure seems to have been his modus operandi. And, eventually, it paid off, although he ended up using a leftover from a non-electrical experiment failure in glass lens manufacture to achieve one of his most critical successes (proof that magnetism affected rays of light by polarizing them) in showing the relationship of elemental forces.
In the Cosmos program, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the host/narrator, showed all the different substances that Faraday tried to get the polarizing effect that would show this magnetic influence on light. One after another, all the chemicals he tried failed. Then finally he looked around the lab and spied his failed lens material experiment (a block of glass). I can imagine him thinking in exasperation, “Why not?” and then being amazed at the result.
Faraday also suffered a bit from “do it by myself-itis.” His lack of advanced mathematical skills caused the scientific community to question his results since he couldn’t come up with the mathematical equations to prove them. Faraday wasn’t so good at asking for help directly, but he did publicize his experiments in speeches and demonstrations. Luckily for him, James Clerk Maxwell heard about his work and came up with the math to support it.
So, if you’re feeling frustrated that things aren’t coming out as you would wish, don’t forget to look around beyond the usual set of solutions (maybe even within a past failure in something unrelated) and ask “Why not?” You never know where or who your solution might come from.
I’d love to hear how you have persisted through failures to achieve success with out-of-the-box ideas or with a great partnership; we can all benefit from your own story, trust me. 🙂