Science that Changed the World: an event at the Royal Institution

Faraday: a very short introductionLast week saw the publication of Michael Faraday: a Very Short Introduction by Frank James, Professor of the History of Science at the Royal Institution. On Wednesday there was Science that Changed the World, an event at the RI to launch the book.

The chair was Chris Bishop, recently appointed Vice President of the RI; the format was that each speaker talked for about ten minutes about their specialist subject, speculating on what the most important impact of the scientist was to the modern world: Frank James on Faraday, David Wootton (Anniversary Professor of History at The University of York & author of Galileo: Watcher of the Skies) on Galileo, Rob Iliffe (Professor of Intellectual History and the History of Science at the University of Sussex & author of Newton: a Very Short Introduction) on Newton, and Jim Secord (Director of the Darwin Correspondence Project) on Darwin.

James kicked off: Einstein claimed to have taken in Faraday with his mother’s milk; the electric field theory of Faraday and Maxwell was arguably the most profound transformation of physics since Newton. He compared Faraday’s successes (eg. Davy’s miners’ lamp which was developed with Faraday’s help) with his failures (his method of stopping corrosion of ships’ bottoms was efficient but also caused the entire British naval fleet to be disabled by biofouling); after this Faraday was much more careful in checking the practicalities of his researches.

He discovered electromagnetic induction, and worked at electricity generation for lighthouses (he did a lot of work for Trinity House). His reputation really sits on his electrical discoveries (being sometimes described as the ‘father of electricity’); as to science that changes the world, James suggested that this is difficult to do, is usually long-term, even generational, and this is an argument for pure research.

Galileo was described by David Wootton as a cantankerous, difficult personality, but the person by whose hand Aristotelian physics died, death by theory of constant acceleration. He was the first to show the power of experimentation, one of the first to use the telescope astronomically (and the first to understand what he saw because of his mathematical training in perspective), and his demonstration that Venus was orbiting the Sun destroyed Ptolemaic astronomy.

He chose to collaborate with the Inquisition, but secretly resisted the suppression of science. His letter to the Grand Duchess Christina was a plea for science to be independent and for science to take precedence over theology if the facts so dictated. Bacon is supposed to have ‘discovered the scientific method’ but ‘facts’ only became the target of science after Galileo’s letter had been translated into English. Galileo cleared away the science of the classical world for modern scientific progress.

This was seeming a little competitive, and it seemed more so when Rob Iliffe came out very much on the defensive for Newton. He asked how original he was, and came out with a long list to show the answer, which I’ll summarise.

Newton’s most important works were the algorithms of calculus (1665-6), the heterogeneity of white light (1666-7), universal gravitation, the laws of motion, and definitions of ‘force’ and ‘mass’ (1685-6).

His mathematical research was largely independent but inspired by the work of Isaac Burrow; his work on light was revolutionary and counter-intuitive; his laws of motion were each a development of previous work but were largely coherent; universal gravitation was completely original and counter to contemporary views of what  nature is (and how to do science); and it was very difficult for his contemporaries to accept the whole package.

Doing science the Newtonian way involved exact measurements, carefully designed experiments which can be used to refine the production of empirical data. He showed that the basis of science is mathematical – explanations now referred to mathematical relations between objects, not unobservable aethers or vortices. And he described Nature as being almost entirely composed of forces.

Jim Secord on Darwin was a little less forceful, however. He talked about Darwin’s image (in both senses of the word), and his study at Down House, within which is Darwin’s desk, upon which are papers, and that’s an important aspect of Darwin. He wrote 15,000 letters, which will fill 30 volumes of 800 pages each when they’re all published (they’re becoming available online as they’re published).

Darwin existed in a network of discussion, across different classes, which was one of his major contributions to science, and he made evolution into something for scientists to work on and to think about. What he had to say was complicated and difficult to reduce down into soundbites.

There was an interesting Q&A to follow, from which three things stick in my mind. That all creationists/flat earthers/loopy medical practitioners/etc trade on the prestige of science; that contemporary debates are not as sophisticated as in earlier times (the same arguments are rehearsed over and over again and people say what they were going to say anyway); and that under current policies Darwin could have got funding to publish his Beagle results, but never to have done his research into evolution because it took too long and had no obvious commercial application.

The book Michael Faraday: a Very Short Introduction made an enjoyable and informative read, and a good introduction to Michael Faraday; it was, however, very short. I managed to read it on the train journey home after the event at the Ri, finishing it on the journey back up to the Ri the following evening to the Christmas Lectures preview (qv).

As an overview of his scientific career, his life and his unorthodox religious proclivities, as well as his enduring legacy, it’s excellent.

There’s a sentence ‘Faraday was one of those lecturers, who still exist today, who persuaded their audience that whilst listening they understood what he said, but who afterwards would have been unable to provide a coherent account of the subject.’ Much like Roger Penrose as can be seen from my incoherent account of his lecture, but there have been other occasions at the Royal Institution when I have sat with rapt attention, but afterwards have found it difficult to write anything worth posting on here.

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One Response to Science that Changed the World: an event at the Royal Institution

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