Cosmos Explains How Michael Faraday Lit Up Our Lives

Tonight's episode of Cosmos tells the story of Michael Faraday, the man who unlocked the secrets of electricity. Born to poverty, unaccomplished at school and evidently cursed with an unfortunately Elmer Fudd-like speech impediment, Faraday educated himself well enough on the subject of electricity to apprentice for the world's foremost expert in the field, Humphry Davy.

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Under Davy, Faraday worked tirelessly and eventually discovered the principles that lead to the electric motor. Davy, jealous of Faraday's success, rewarded his young assistant by banishing him to a scientific gulag to study glassmaking, a craft that was shrouded in trade secrecy and which Faraday had no particular interest in or talent for.

As with the story of the slow adoption of the theory of continental drift from last week's episode, this irritating chapter in Faraday's life reminds us that it is precisely because scientists are humans, with human biases and petty rivalries, that science itself must always strive to factor these biases out. We cannot expect scientists to all be paragons of virtue. The field itself must correct for human nature.

The story of Faraday's long sojourn in the unprofitable world of glass research also illustrates another common story in science, that sometimes the most profound of findings come from the least expected of places.

In his Edison-like quest to discover a material that would control the polarization of light, Faraday became so frustrated by failure that, out of desperation, he tried a block of glass he'd kept as memento of his days of servitude to Davy. The glass worked, and so Faraday unlocked the relationship between electricity, magnetism and light and laid the foundation for James Clerk Maxwell's grand unification theory of electromagnetism.

It's impossible to imagine modern life without electricity. Along with fire, the wheel and the lever and fulcrum, electricity has defined the evolution of human civilization. On tonight's episode, we learned how an energy source that was once little more than a novelty item used to create flashy parlor tricks became so basic to our lives that the loss of it would mark the end of civilization as we know it.

If the history of science has taught us anything, it's to expect the unexpected and to never give up the drive to discover new and better ways to power and observe our world. The development of new energy sources is not a threat to our economy. To contrary, our economy would depend on such innovation even if fossil fuels were perfectly harmless and ubiquitously abundant. The real threat to our economy is stagnating behind a single technology when overuse of that technology compromises the stability of our home.




That was a great episode, but I wish he'd spent more time on Maxwell's Equations. Starting with the work of Faraday, Ampere and Gauss, Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell* (1831-1879) unified electricity and magnetism, which were previously considered separate forces, and predicted electromagnetic radiation. German physicist Heinrich Hertz (1957-1894) experimentally verified the existence of these waves and studied their properties. Inventors like Tesla, Marconi, Fessenden and Armstrong engineered these properties into practical communications systems, leading directly to the wireless world we live in today. Radio communications of all kinds, radio astronomy, broadcast television, cellular phones, WiFi and other radio frequency devices without number all came directly from his work.

*and his students