Secrets of the Universe in a Candle

Michael Faraday had very little scientific training and wasn’t particularly good at math, but still he was one of the most brilliant and influential scientists the world has ever known.  He had the kind of mind that questioned and sought out the answers.  He learned to see the secrets of the universe in a candle, a mundane everyday object people saw thousands of times without ever understanding what they were seeing.

Michael Faraday is seen here giving one of his Christmas lectures for juveniles. The lectures on a candle were part of this series. This image is in the public domain.

Most of us, including myself, do not automatically question all the physical phenomena we see around us.  But though this tendency is not natural to us, the beauty of the human mind is that we do not depend on the natural alone, we can learn.

How To Think Like A Scientist

Michael Faraday delivered a series of lectures called The Chemical History of a Candle, which were given to young people while he was a professor of the Royal Institution.  In this set of lectures he explained the science behind a candle.  He spoke of the three zones of burning in a candle, the structure of a candle and why it burns, the brightness of the flame, the chemical reaction of burning, that air is necessary and that water is produced, the carbon that is left behind after burning, and on and on for six lectures worth.

The secrets of the universe are found in mundane things, like a burning candle. This is how to think like a scientist.

The secrets of the universe can be found in the most common place of phenomenon, like a burning candle, if only we can see.  One of the jobs of a good scientific education to teach children to see and to wonder and seek out answers on their own, with a mentor to guide them.  All too often science and the other subjects are made up of memorized and regurgitated information.  But science is really about discovery and reflection.

Try it Yourself

Here is the process and an example of how this can be done:

Simple things like a pot of boiling water can te4ach your kids to think like a scientist.

Start With A Demonstration or Experiment & Make Observations

  • Bring water to a boil on the stove top while the students watch and observe.  Tell them you want them to notice every little thing about the boiling water and its surroundings.
  • Have them write down questions or observations about the boiling water, or write them as a group.
  • Next begin to experiment with the water and see if you can find out some truths about it.  Use thermometers, add salt, freeze it, time it, re-condense it, capture the steam in a jar, turn the heat higher or lower, or put a lid on the pot.  Take notes and make comparisons.

    Then Discuss The Science

  • Now, as the teacher, you should begin to ask questions and help the students find the answers: Why do the bubbles form on the bottom of the pot?  Why do the bubbles grow larger as they near the top?  Why is the boiling point what it is, and why does the water stay that temperature and not get hotter?  How does heat get from the burner into the water?  Why does the heat remain the same and not build up and up?  You don’t have to rely on original exploration only, it’s okay to look up answers and do research like a real scientist.  It is helpful if the teacher has already read up on at least some of these things so as to be a better guide.

Finally, Encourage More Questioning & Experimentation

  • Then branch out and show the kids some really cool things about water, like how ice cubes (a solid) can float on liquid water.  Why?  You can boil water in a paper cup.  Why?  Water and oil don’t mix.  Why?  Water sinks below oil.  Why?  You can put a cup of sugar into a cup of water and you don’t get two cups when you’re finished.  Why?

The secrets of the universe are literally contained in the most mundane of experiences.  Help your students to understand that and begin to see differently.

Additional Layers

  • Read Faraday’s The Chemical History of a Candle.  It was originally presented to young students and isn’t too difficult.  It is very good for students to read the original words of great scientists so they don’t feel intimidated by the subject.
  • Pick other everyday physical or natural occurrences and begin to question.  You could start with a slinky climbing down the stairs, mold growing on bread, a beautiful sunset, a twinkling star, waves crashing on a beach, or your toast in the toaster.
  • Once your kids know how to boil water, why not teach them other mysteries of cooking?  Not much is more immediately rewarding than a well cooked meal.  And there’s lots to discover – yeast making bread rise would make a lovely lesson and treat to eat.
  • What was the Royal Society of England?  Read up on it and its history.
  • Teach kids how to research a question by searching online and at the library.  Being able to find the answers in books or other written materials is more important than memorizing a bunch of facts.  Every kid should be comfortable in the library.

More From Layers of Learning

Below are a bunch of science lessons that use water to teach scientific principles.  All of our units also have science sections that use Explorations and Experiments to facilitate discovery learning.  We also hope you’ll join us on facebook.  Remember, to be a good scientist you have to ask a lot of questions!  Come chat with us there and let us know if you have any questions.  We love to help!

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