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"Cosmos" Episode 10: He's Electric

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV Reviews | May 12, 2014 | Comments ()

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Oh electricity, plaything of the modern age. If you had to select a single technology out of our toolkit, that’s the one that would set us back the most. Everything in our society, even the things that we take completely for granted and seem like they have nothing to do with electricity, reverts overnight back to 1850 just by pulling the plug. The fans stop, the computers stop, all communications stop, all manufacturing stops, even running water, forced out into the pipes through electrical pumps, stops. Look around yourself right now, and how many things within arm’s reach runs on electricity? And the things that weren’t, how many could have been manufactured with minimal changes without electricity? And even of those, how many could have been manufactured so cheaply?

Electricity is our genie, the little puffs of magic that run under the hood of virtually everything in our society. It’s so prevalent that its effects are almost invisible to us, because it is simply always there.

This week’s episode of Cosmos served as a sort of biography for electricity, or at least the discovery of it. The episode did less well actually explaining the science of what was going on than the stories of the men behind our understanding of it. Tyson at one point even basically admits in the narrative that if it doesn’t make sense, don’t worry about it, it took a lot of really smart guys to figure it out in the first place.

This is one of the first times the show really has disappointed me, and it did so in the same vein as the previous times. While the show has not shied away in the least from controversy, it has been content at times to explain a concept poorly, shrug at the audience, and move on. As someone with a science and engineering background, I usually understand the concepts of the show already, and on a more complicated level than the show is explaining them. But there’s a joy in seeing them explained in different ways, and adding more intuition to what you already have. But electricity and magnetism are the area I have the weakest background in, and this was the weakest explanatory episode since they glossed over black holes with two minutes of CGI going into the light with a constipated face.

I’m irked that I don’t actually have any idea how the reflection experiment was working, or why the block of glass was supposed to work at all, and the fact that the show’s explanation was “eh, it’s complicated, we’re not even going to try to explain” really rubbed wrong. It felt like a lazy choice in a show that has excelled in making scientific concepts comprehensible even while acknowledging that fully understanding them takes effort and knowledge.

The human stories were well executed though, rounding out further the “great lives” sort of approach that the show has taken with a man from abject poverty who raises himself up through genius, but also is kept grounded by a bedrock Christian faith his entire life. And then contrasting this with the upper class savant of Maxwell. But the clever and important bit there is the note that Faraday was ultimately constrained by his upbringing, that his lack of formal training had left him without the math to finish his work.

There’s a curious undercurrent to the show’s recurring stories of individual scientists: in a show about explaining how the world works, we do not actually know how genius happens. They just arrive out of the blue like chosen ones, sprinkled across cultures and classes and time. There’s a fair and justified amount of hero worship going on, but there’s also a selfish aspect of social justice in play: we have no idea who the next world-shaking genius will be, so it only makes sense to give everyone the tools, to ensure that we don’t waste the next genius like we have done so many previously. Repression is just slow societal suicide.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • e jerry powell

    I was haunted by the memories if the EMF right-hand rule. Physics ruined my sleep last night.

  • maureenc

    I think your link is broken there at the end. Here, for all of us nerds who want to cry/rage again:


  • Thanks! Fixed now.

  • Lord Inferno

    I think you are dead on with your opinions of Cosmos as a series in general. With all the activities of Mother's Day, this episode is still sitting on my DVR for future viewing, but I am very much looking forward to it.

    What I am about to say is likely to be seen as high treason and heresy by many. As an engineer and a lifelong lover of science, I understand the importance of Cosmos the series, the fact that it is on network television now, and I consider Neil Degrasse Tyson to be a living demigod. That being said, I think that Cosmos is not a very good science series. Every episode so far has had the exact same problem with glossing over the detail while at the same time not providing a very intuitive concept of the science for the viewer.

    But the thing the show does do well is tell the history of science and the people behind it. The show is very heavy handed at times with some of it's characterizations, but mostly the message has always been an important one. From women in science, to evolution, to the relationship of science with the church hundreds of years ago, the show does not shy away from looking at what the people at the center of scientific advancement face.

    I am a VEX robotics coach at my old high school along with a friend of mine who started the program about four years ago. We are always looking for things to show after school during practice as supplements to the little lectures we give on computer science, mechanical engineering and technical communication. I wasn't originally going to recommend the series to my friend to show during practice, but I think I will now. The whole goal of the program is to inspire high school kids to want to become scientists and engineers. The show may not be great technically, but it does a good job of showing how science is a very human endeavor. Hopefully some of the guys and gals will find new heroes in the stories.

  • lukebc

    I've been saying for years that all the talk about our modern industrial world coming to an end if we didn't have petroleum IS nothing but brainwash shoved into our heads by the oil propagandists. BUT, if electricity becomes a scarce commodity? Then the life that all of us who have the opportunity NOW to come to pajiba IS over.

  • BWeaves

    I enjoyed the episode, but yeah, I wish they'd try to explain rhe complicated stuff more. A lot of us who are watching are pretty educated. I don't want it dumbed down to a 6th grade level.

  • Jiffylush

    Boogie Ooggie Ooggie Ooggie

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