This week on Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Neil deGrasse Tyson reminded us that science can feel magical with a discussion of the scientists who brought us the wizardry of electricity and magnets. We also got a peek behind the magician's curtain, with a discussion of the fraught relationships between Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday, among others, who set the stage for Albert Einstein's monumental discoveries.
Michael Faraday and the Sorcerer's (Glass) Stone
Danielle: Last night’s episode was another that discussed largely Earth-bound science, and also delivered a healthy dose of earthly drama with an investigation of the frenemies of physics (characterization mine). As has become a trend in the series, Tyson introduced a scientific topic -- in this case, the magnetic field and electricity -- through the lens of the scientists who made key breakthroughs in the field. In this case, Tyson told about Michael Faraday, his evil sponsor Humphry Davy, and his protege James Clerk Maxwell. Together, sometimes in competition rather than cooperation, they solved Newton’s mystery of gravity and set the stage for Einstein’s theory of relativity. Not too shabby.
Abby: I can't tell if it's because these historical vignettes are getting better, or if it's because I have the narrative equivalent of Stockholm syndrome, but I'm starting to come around a little more to their reliance on history as parable. In previous episodes, as we've noted, Cosmos has demonstrated a looser grasp on the historical record than it has with the scientific achievements produced by these stories. While I'm wondering how poor Davy — accomplished in his own right — would feel about his portrayal as the villain here, he did in fact earn some of that reputation in hindsight. For much of his early employment by Davy, Faraday had to eat with the servants instead of at the table with the couple. And once, on a trip to France, Davy had Faraday work as his valet. In other words, he never fully embraced his role as the mentor to one of the greatest scientific minds of the age. When Faraday made his first great discovery — an apparatus that is the basis of an engine — Davy falsely accused him of stealing it.
Danielle: I have to say that though Davy is the villain in last night’s episode (according to the episode, he forced Faraday to spend years fruitlessly studying the art of making optical glass once he realized Faraday would outpace him as a scientist) I was still kind of into him. The show describes him as a “consummate showman,” and depicts his character as a cape-wearing chemist who wowed students with flashy demonstrations. So he was basically a wizard. And not a bad-looking wizard, either. Some might even say a good-looking wizard.
Abby: Yes, as we discovered while watching the episode, Humphry Davy has earned his place among the pantheon of Dreamy Jerks in History.
Danielle: It must be kind of fun for Tyson to talk about physicists and chemists in this way, because their discoveries are so tangibly exciting. So much of astronomy requires us to think on a scale that is (excuse the pun) alien to our sensibilities -- it’s hard to think about something that might have happened billions of years ago, or might happen billions of years from now, or could theoretically exist on a planet we’ll never see. But electricity and magnetism are easy to get excited about.
Abby: Cosmos used Faraday to briefly touch on something related to this idea of exciting the public about science. Faraday — like Davy before him — gave public demonstrations of experiments. He started the Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution in London, and the tradition has continued since he gave the first one in 1825. They've been televised since 1966. And essentially, they're a commitment to the same thing that Cosmos is trying to do: present scientific discoveries to the public. Just as the Tyson series has harkened back to the Sagan-era Cosmos, it's also demonstrating its lineage. What was once a remake of a 1980's television series now has a downright Biblical list of ancestors. Who are, side note, almost entirely men. Just five women have given the Christmas lecture since 1825, as 2013 lecturer Alison Woollard pointed out at the time. You can find an archive of some of those lectures, by the way, here.
Danielle: We only have a few episodes left, but I wonder if the discussion of religion will enter more into the realm of morality in science, and the negative real-world implications (like nuclear warheads and biological warfare) of scientific discovery. Though I think it’s safe to say that discovery of the world’s magnetic field is a good thing.
In recent episodes, Tyson seems to have moved away from the discussion of science in relation to religion, which is something we saw a lot of earlier. But he did mention last night that Faraday was raised as a fundamentalist Christian, which is interesting. In this case, it seemed to have affected his career in somewhat surprising ways.
Abby: Right. Faraday's religious devotion played an interesting — and positive — role in his life, including specifically on his scientific accomplishments. Faraday did not believe that the Bible was a literal source for scientific information. Instead, he pursued empirical investigations designed to better understand the laws of nature. He did, however, object on religious grounds to at least one pursuit he believed to be immoral:
Michael Faraday's religious objection: He refused the British govt's request to develop chemical weapons for the Crimean War. #Cosmos— Corey S. Powell (@coreyspowell) May 12, 2014
Neil deGrasse Tyson was livetweeting this episode, which he doesn't do every week. So it was a treat to see him pull out some behind the scenes photos, and to also prove that he is a wizard just like Davy is:
We also discovered something interesting: it looks like the Advanced Placement physics exams are today for many high schoolers in the U.S., meaning that a number of #teens were on Twitter trying to convince the world that watching Cosmos was the same as studying. At least the Faraday discoveries were relevant:
My version of studying for the AP Physics exam is watching #Cosmos on Fox.— DanJones (@WhoopDanJones) May 12, 2014
I watched #cosmos last night, I should get a 5 on this AP physics exam.— Alex Babbitt (@alex_babbitt) May 12, 2014
Fact: Watching Cosmos counts as studying for AP Physics.— Alyssa Aubuchon (@AlyssaAubuchon) May 12, 2014
Ha ha, good luck kids.
And Twitter loved the Christmas Lectures shout-out :
YES! the RI Christmas lectures were my favourite part of the season growing up! #Cosmos— Richard Read (@sotonrich) May 12, 2014
What Did We Learn?
Abby: I only knew about Faraday's contributions to electromagnetism and electrochemistry. But I didn't know anything about his religious devotion, or about his massive contributions to public science education.
Danielle: I did not know that Bavarian optical glass was the 19th century industry standard bearer, and also didn't know all that much about Davy and his glorious, conniving career. And I didn't know that the AP Physics test was today until all the teen tweets got omg-the-test-is-tomorrow desperate last night. Good luck, little ones!
Check out our discussions of previous Cosmos episodes below:
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.