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Thumbnail of Michael Faraday (source)
Michael Faraday
(22 Sep 1791 - 25 Aug 1867)

English physicist and chemist who was a great experimentalist. His major contributions included the early understanding of electromagnetism.

Michael Faraday’s Letter to the Editor
on Pollution of the River Thames

Royal Institution: July 7, 1855.

Published in The Times

[In the mid-19th century, before the great engineering scheme by Sir Joseph Bazalgette provided sewers across the city of London, increasing amounts of raw sewage and waste had been dumped into the River Thames, causing extreme pollution. Benjamin Disraeli called it the “Stygian Pool.” Finally the politicians in the Houses of Parliament, built beside the River, suffered a stench that made the building uninhabitable. They finally took action in 1858, and authorized Bazelgette to fix the “The Great Stink.” The problem had been growing for years, and the newpapers had carried editorials and columns of indignant correspondence from men of influence. The respected scientist, Michael Faraday, wrote this letter in 1855 describing the serious pollution, which was republished in various periodicals.]

Punch cartoon; Faraday leans from riverboat, handing card to a dirty vagabond, Father Thames standing hip-deep in water.
And we hope the Dirty Fellow will consult the learned Professor
Punch (21 Jul 1855)

Sir,—I traversed this day by steamboat the space between London and Hungerford Bridges, between half-past one and two o'clock. It was low water, and I think the tide must have been near the turn. The appearance and smell of the water forced themselves at once on my attention. The whole of the river was an opaque pale brown fluid. In order to test the degree of opacity, I tore up some white cards into pieces, and then moistened them, so as to make them sink easily below the surface, and then dropped some of these pieces into the water at every pier the boat came to. Before they had sunk an inch below the surface they were undistinguishable, though the sun shone brightly at the time, and when the pieces fell edgeways the lower part was hidden from sight before the upper part was under water.

This happened at St. Paul's Wharf, Blackfriars Bridge, Temple Wharf, Southwark Bridge, and Hungerford, and I have no doubt would have occurred further up and down the river. Near the bridges the feculence rolled up in clouds so dense that they were visible at the surface even in water of this kind.

The smell was very bad, and common to the whole of the water. It was the same as that which now comes up from the gully holes in the streets. The whole river was for the time a real sewer. Having just returned from the country air, I was perhaps more affected by it than others; but I do not think that I could have gone on to Lambeth or Chelsea, and I was glad to enter the streets for an atmosphere which, except near the sink-holes, I found much sweeter than on the river.

I have thought it a duty to record these facts, that they may be brought to the attention of those who exercise power, or have responsibility in relation to the condition of our river. There is nothing figurative in the words I have employed, or any approach to exaggeration. They are the simple truth.

If there be sufficient authority to remove a putrescent pond from the neighbourhood of a few simple dwellings, surely the river which flows for so many miles through London ought not to be allowed to become a fermenting sewer. The condition in which I saw the Thames may perhaps be considered as exceptional, but it ought to be an impossible state; instead of which, I fear it is rapidly becoming the general condition. If we neglect this subject, we cannot expect to do so with impunity; nor ought we to be surprised if, ere many years are over, a season give us sad proof of the folly of our carelessness.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,

M. Faraday.

Introduction by Webmaster. Image, not part of original text, added from Punch (21 Jul 1855), 28, collected in Cartoons From Punch (1906), Vol. 1, 378. Text from Bence Jones (ed.), The Life and Letters of Faraday (1870), Vol. 2, 358. (source)

See also:

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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