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Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Episode 10, “The Electric Boy”

Up till now, Cosmos has used historical sequences as an adjunct to the science, just as a way of giving credit to the men and women who brought us the discoveries we now take for granted. But this time, the writers made the interesting and daring choice to make the entire episode a historical story told through animation. This forecloses the possibility of the firework visuals that have been Cosmos‘ stock in trade, and I think it’s an approach that has both strengths and weaknesses.

This week’s story was about Michael Faraday, the British scientist who proved that electricity, magnetism and light were deeply interrelated. Faraday was born into poverty in one of the most class-conscious societies in history and likely had almost no formal schooling. Still, he managed to get himself hired as an assistant by Humphry Davy, himself one of the most accomplished scientists of the age, after Davy was temporarily blinded by a lab accident (which was shown on screen – only briefly, but even so it easily qualifies as the most gruesome moment of the series so far).

Faraday quickly proved his own talent, solving a problem that stumped his mentor: how to turn electric current into continuous mechanical motion and vice versa. Put another way, he invented both the motor and the generator. When Davy died, Faraday succeeded to his position as director of the laboratory of the Royal Institution, Britain’s leading scientific research institution, and instituted a famous and still ongoing series of Christmas Lectures to communicate science to the public.

The historical focus allowed this episode to slow down, to take the time to tell its story in detail, and to show the admirable dedication and painstaking effort that goes into scientific discovery (something that was also shown in “The Clean Room”). I liked its strong, clean explanation of the geomagnetic field and the aurora, and the segment pointing out that migratory birds, among other animals, naturally use Earth’s magnetic field to orient themselves, so in a sense they “discovered” it well before humans did. But while I have no objections to the material that was presented, I feel there were some lost opportunities.

For instance, Faraday’s discoveries led directly to the four equations of James Clerk Maxwell, which quantified the deep relationship between electricity and magnetism, yet Maxwell was introduced only in the last five minutes. I think his equations, which appeared on screen in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, could have been presented and their significance explained in more depth. This is especially true given that the episode showed Faraday puzzling over the relationship between light and magnetism. Maxwell’s work resolved this conundrum by proving light to be an electromagnetic wave, an enormous discovery that opened up new vistas of understanding on the universe.

Also, I think it would have been cool to discuss the possibility of an upcoming magnetic pole reversal. This would have flowed naturally from the presentation of the dynamo theory, and could have been used to good effect to give viewers another tantalizing glimpse of what may await our planet in the future.

If there’s anything that deserves a nitpick, it was the opening segment which implies that our entire modern civilization, with all its dependence on speed-of-light communication, “might not exist today” without Michael Faraday. While it’s true that radio, television, computers and many other inventions are descended from Faraday’s work, I thought this episode overstepped when asserting that they might never have existed if not for him. The laws of nature are inherent in the physical world; anyone can discover or rediscover them. If Faraday had never lived, it might have taken longer or happened elsewhere, but I have no doubt that someone would have made the same discoveries and history would have continued more or less along the same track.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...