"Cosmos" Episode 10: He's Electric
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.