Saturday, March 29, 2008

I shall make a quiet flame,...

I shall make a quiet flame, for who can study a subject when there are difficulties in the way not belonging to it?
Isn't that a nicely turned sentence? When I came across it I stopped reading for a while just to admire it.

I haven't finished reading this book The Chemical History of a Candle (it is a free download but I have a paperback version). But I thought I would write about it now because next week I probably won't have time to do much writing. It is IEP season among other things, and Aidan has various appointments almost every single day; two on some days.

Here is an HTML version. Apparently Michael Faraday was one of those auto-didacts and late-starters that I was talking about in my last post. He grew up in a poor family and most of his education was acquired by himself. He was apprenticed to a bookbinder at age 14 and it was there that he was able to browse through old books (one of them was Isaac Watts' The Improvement of the Mind -- a summary can be found here)and consequently became fascinated with science.

He got his "break" when he attended lectures by Sir Humphrey Davy and sent the notable lecturer a copy of the careful notes he had made on the lectures. When Davy was blinded by nitrogen in a laboratory experiment he hired Faraday as his secretary.

I didn't realize till I picked up the book from my shelf that these six lectures on the candle were intended for a youthful audience. He did a very popular series of "Christmas lectures" for young people on various subjects that are still carried on today, from what I understand, a century and a half later. I can understand the popularity of the lectures -- here is the whole passage from which I took the quote above:

We have here a good deal of wind, which will help us in some of our illustrations, but tease us in others; for the sake, therefore, of a little regularity, and to simplify the matter, I shall make a quiet flame, for who can study a subject when there are difficulties in the way not belonging to it? Here is a clever invention of some costermonger or street-stander in the market-place for the shading of their candles on Saturday nights, when they are selling their greens, or potatoes, or fish. I have very often admired it. They put a lamp-glass round the candle, supported on a kind of gallery, which clasps it, and it can be slipped up and down as required. By the use of this lamp-glass, employed in the same way, you have a steady flame, which you can look at, and carefully examine, as I hope you will do, at home.

You see, then, in the first instance, that a beautiful cup is formed. As the air comes to the candle, it moves upward by the force of the current which the heat of the candle produces, and it so cools all the sides of the wax, tallow, or fuel as to keep the edge much cooler than the part within; the part within melts by the flame that runs down the wick as far as it can go before it is extinguished, but the part on the outside does not melt.
It is all like that. I had the impression that the subject of the chemical history of the candle would be dry and abstract and way over my amateurish head, but in fact the writing style and content is suitable for an intelligent middle-schooler, but still pleasant to an adult because of its plain lucidity.


JoVE said...

That sounds like a good find. We might have to look out for it.

And yes Christmas lectures on science (cannot recall exactly what they are called) are still happening in the UK and are broadcast on the BBC on Christmas Day, I think. I certainly recall watching a few at family gatherings with younger cousin's of Mat's. Might be worth digging around the BBC website to see if they are broadcast on the radio as well.

If you haven't discovered In Our Time hosted by Melvyn Bragg, you might want to check it out ( I think you would like it. And you can listen over your computer. The entire archive is also available though newer installments can be downloaded as a podcast (it appears that the current program is about the dissolution of the monasteries but they also have history of science and whatnot)

Meredith said...

That first line is sublime, I would have never guessed at what was further. Interesting read, looks reat!