Cosmos and the Sideburns

Last night's episode of the Cosmos reboot focused on one of the three physicists whose pictures Einstein kept in his office: Michael Faraday. I'm a big fan of Faraday, who famously started his career as a bookbinder's apprentice reading the books brought into the shop, and ended as one of the greatest experimental physicists of the 19th Century. Also, he had magnificent sideburns, as you can see in the picture. It's a great story-- I highly recommend his biography-- and pretty much the entire episode was devoted to Faraday, with only a surprisingly tenuous astronomy connection at the end, mentioning the Earth's magnetic field the Van Allen belts, and the aurorae.

My knowledge of Faraday isn't all that comprehensive-- basically, I've read the io linked above, and a handful of articles-- but I thought they did a pretty good job with the story in general. There were a few points where they twisted things a little-- they made Humphrey Davy out to be a little more villainous than I think he probably deserved (they had a falling out, it's true, but I think it was exaggerated in the cartoon; I'm not sure he was even working under Davy any more when the show has him cruelly ordered to work on glass instead of electricity), and they downplayed Faraday's religion (though they did mention it at the very start of the story). I thought James Clerk Maxwell (another of Einstein's pictures-- the third was Newton) deserved a bit more space, as well, but they did at least explain that Faraday's lack of mathematical training prevented him from getting the magnetic field concept widely accepted, and it wasn't until Maxwell's more formal mathematical treatment that something like the modern picture took hold.

I do have one sort of philosophical quibble with the framing of the episode, namely the "If Faraday hadn't lived, modern technology might not exist..." device they used to introduce the story. Not to take anything away from Faraday, who was a brilliant guy and an exceptional experimentalist, but electromagnetic research was all the rage at that time, and if he hadn't been the one to discover induction and diamagnetism and the rotation of polarization by light, somebody else would've in short order. It was basically steam engine time for E&M (and also, you know, steam engines), and Faraday's discoveries would've come along within a short period anyway. Probably not from the hands of a single guy, but rather a collection of different physicists in multiple countries, and it might've taken a little longer to put some of them across without Faraday's immense talent in the lab. But the whole "If not for ___ science might not have happened" thing is the sort of Great Man of History overhype that we ought to be beyond at this point.

Other than that, though, this was a well-done episode highlighting one of the great underdog stories in the history of science. Faraday really did make an incredible mark on 19th century science, despite his humble origins, and was apparently one of the nicest guys in the history of physics-- other than his falling out with Davy, nobody seems to have had a negative word. The only reason he's not a Sir or a Lord like most of the other great British physicists is that the particular religious sect he was raised in emphasized humility above all, and he declined offers of formal honors. He had to put himself forward to become a Fellow of the Royal Society (as professional protection during his split with Davy), which seems to have involved mentioning to about three people that it would be nice if he made FRS, whereupon they quickly made it happen, and very late in his life, when he was too ill to continue working for the Royal Institution, he accepted a house from Queen Victoria; other than that, he didn't seek fame or fortune.

(Also, he offered the best professional advice ever: Work. Finish. Publish.)

So, if you're going to pull one scientist from that era to devote an entire episode of a high-profile science show to, Faraday is an outstanding choice. I'm slightly surprised by the decision, given they only have three more episodes and haven't even talked about a whole bunch of cool astronomy stuff-- dark matter! dark energy!-- but I like Faraday a whole lot, so I can't complain too much.

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“If Faraday hadn’t lived, modern technology might not exist…”

Nearly all of Faraday's technological discoveries were made simultaneously by other researchers. In fact there were better electrical generators and motors developed by others earlier than Faraday developed his.

I don't think that they meant to come across as" if Faraday hadn't lived modern technology might not exist..." I felt they were trying to communicate that Faraday was ahead of his time in terms of how much he was able to accomplish and discover given his humble beginning and short life. Neil Degrasse Tyson did mention that eventually mankind would have figured it out, just not as quickly if not for Faraday. I don't think its a matter of discovery more a matter of the time it took to be discovered. I think Faraday was the most well known and celebrated for the technological discoveries at that time.

By Tianna Walter (not verified) on 12 May 2014 #permalink

Seeing the bit on his original motor, in Mercury got me thinking: "did Mercury exposure cause his later mental issues?"

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 12 May 2014 #permalink

Who would win the award for the most "If not for _____ . . . " physicist of all time? I think the scoring should be some sort of product of the magnitude of the discovery and the estimated time until someone else would have figured it out. Someone should assemble a panel of people smarter than me to figure this out.

I'm really not surprised that the faith angle was downplayed. Christianity and science have parted ways since the 1800s-nowadays, you can either be a scientist or a Christian, but not both.

By Politicalguineapig (not verified) on 13 May 2014 #permalink

That's a depressingly narrowminded view of both "scientist" and "Christian." But this is an old and pointless argument, not really worth having again.

Agree 100% on your "great man" point. I even predicted it would lead your review as soon as I heard it in the episode! Would we have had modern technology without Maxwell to predict electromagnetic waves and explain Faraday rotation? ... without Hertz to actually make those waves a full 20 years after the prediction was made?

I would have been a lot happier if they had played up the significance of Maxell and Hertz and made the final seque from radio receivers to radio astronomy. Maxwell is responsible for both parts of the modern physics that led to Einstein's great advances: light waves that violate Maxwell's equations if you travel next to them at c, and the statistical mechanics of a gas that he invoked when inventing photons.

PS - I also didn't like how they showed a massive spark from a 20 turn coil ...

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 14 May 2014 #permalink

yeah, CCphysicist--that spark bothered me too!

p.s. if it weren't for Tragoth Mammoth Slayer discovering fire, we might not have iphones today!