Science Rules: Brad Efford on Bill Nye the Science Guy, Episode 18: "Electricity"
In 1812, a twenty-year-old Michael Faraday attends a series of lectures by the chemist Humphry Davy, whose groundbreaking work in the field of electrolysis years earlier has led to the discovery of several new elements, including sodium, potassium, and the alkali metals. Davy is all of thirty-four years old and by the time the year closes out he will have given his career’s final lecture, been knighted by the queen of England, and married a rich widow. He is handsome, speaks with the confidence of the young and cocksure, and his little talks pack the house. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge loves them so much, in fact, he attends just to “increase his stock in metaphors.” Humphry Davy, a decade deep into the new century, is hot shit. He will also change Michael Faraday’s life forever.
To begin with, after attending Davy’s lectures in 1812, twenty-year-old Michael Faraday is so moved that he composes a book detailing his own feelings about what Davy has said. The book is three hundred pages long. Faraday mails it to Davy because, well, who knows why. Why not? Minimal probable reward, but practically absent risk, he must figure. Does Davy read the thing? Even if he says he does, who can say. Regardless, he’s impressed: he invites Faraday out to the country to be his assistant in the lab and his valet outside of it. Who can say if it is only a coincidence that not long before, an experiment with nitrogen trichloride has gone horribly wrong, leaving Davy partially blind for the final fifteen years of life. Who can say who needs whom more, the eager student or the wounded chemist?
Michael Faraday is a young man heading into the third decade of the seventeenth century. He is traveling across Europe with someone he greatly admires, helping him capture the light-heat of the sun to ignite diamond, helping him discover iodine, helping him discover what that older man will go on to call the greatest discovery of his life: Michael Faraday.
And that older man isn’t wrong. He in fact becomes so frustrated by his rightness that before he dies, he accuses Faraday of plagiarism. Who can say the validity versus the pettiness behind it, which is not to suggest either? Faraday is doing new, important, world-shifting work with electromagnetism—he puts the research on hold until his mentor finally passes in 1829, recovering in Geneva from his second, final stroke.
History has reassessed these stories, as it sometimes will. Humphry Davy is an important, influential figure. Then again, who is Humphry Davy? Michael Faraday they named a character on Lost after. Not that that’s the end-all be-all, but it’s not nothing. It’s cultural weight. And there are several factors at play: Humphry Davy’s a difficult, silly sounding name, for starters, whereas “Faraday” sounds important. Luckily for Faraday, too, he figured out how to make electricity—kind of, and with help—instead of discovering a series of chemical elements and properties. There are too many elements. Remembering having to remember them all makes you dislike Humphry Davy simply by association. But there is only one electricity, and it is super cool. Lightning is electricity. Cars are electricity. Music and movies and the internet.
Michael Faraday. You can’t help the ones that make it. The ones history chooses. Who can say what would make you care—what wouldn’t?
The science guy is telling the story of Faraday’s first demonstrations of electricity. How he’d stand on stage and move a coil of wire over a magnet. How the wire was coiled at both ends—how the other hung suspended yards down the length of the stage, surrounding a compass on a platform. How when Faraday moved the wire at one end over the magnet, the needle in the compass far away—without touching anything other than the invisible electromagnetic field surrounding it—moved from side to side.
The science guy clearly loves this story. He tells how Faraday responded when a woman approached him after one such demonstration and asked, Of what use is it?
Madam, well, you tell me the use of a newborn child!
The science guy delivers the line with all the force of conviction and joyful delight that it may have in fact been originally given. He relishes this sort of anecdote, where the scientist cuts loose, makes a discovery, lays into idiots. Electricity, especially, must hold a special place in the science guy’s heart: it’s led an otherwise awkward, gangly so-and-so into the homes of millions. It’s put an engineer in a lab coat, on public broadcasting, on screens across the country. The science guy would not be the science guy on a stage delivering lines. The medium is the message, it’s the vehicle, it’s the impetus, it’s the everything. The science guy owes Faraday his livelihood and his happiness, and he knows it.
At the Grand Coulee Dam in central Washington, the science guy takes a stab at getting across the size of the generators that run the country’s largest electric power-producing facility.
I mean, big.
I mean, very big.
I mean, bigly, hugely, bigly, hugely big generators.
He waves his arms around and raises his voice. The scope is just that important to him. He reminds us that electricity is all around, at all times, every day. When you imagine everything you’re using electricity for right now, meaning at this very specific moment, you’re baffled. Of course, how could you not be? He’s right about the scope, how bigly it can be, how bigly every moment.
How can something so powerful be invisible? the science guy asks, and the answer’s in the question. Its power, in fact, resides in its invisibility. It’s the same invisibility that powers motivation, exploration, discovery, grievance, accusation, fame. It’s the story of seven billion people all trying all at once to live a life electric. All trying at once for the chance to be seen, to be known, to run like a current through the world.
Brad Efford is the founding editor of The RS 500, a project pairing each of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time with an original piece of writing. His writing can be found in Puerto del Sol, Pank, Hobart, and elsewhere. He teaches English and history in Austin, TX.