We command countless legions of electrons. They make possible our way of life, our instantaneous communications with each other and with our robotic emissaries at the solar system’s frontier. Michael Faraday, the man whose genius Albert Einstein revered, was the first to put these invisible armies at our disposal. He lived an against-all-odds-story that cannot help but engage and inspire.
We begin with the mystery that bedeviled Isaac Newton: How do the planets know that
the distant Sun is pulling on them? How do all the apples know how to fall?
As if in a dream, we travel to the moment in Einstein’s childhood when his father gave him
a simple toy. This small gift prompted his first inkling that “something deeply hidden must
lie behind all things.”
Faraday was a child of 19th century poverty, one from whom nothing much was expected. He was a lifelong Christian fundamentalist who had only a brief few months of schooling. He grew up to become the founder of scientific field theory, inventing the motor, the generator, and the dynamo. He is the bridge to our age of communication, including television, iPhones, tablets, and so much else. Born into a world that expected little of him beyond servitude, he rose to the pinnacle of science and society. His legendary humility moved him to reject Queen Victoria’s repeated offers of knighthood and a final resting place along side Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey.
Faraday’s “All About Eve” relationship to his mentor Sir Humphry Davy, his enduring love
for his wife Sarah, his invention of public science education for children, his battle with
memory loss and mental illness, and the dramatic discovery he made in old age despite
these challenges, are all part of the romance of this remarkable life. Along the way we meet the (non-human) beings, who discovered magnetic fields long before Faraday.
When Faraday attempted to prove his greatest insight, he hit a wall – due to his lack of
formal education he couldn’t do the math. This is where the aristocratic young
mathematician James Clerk Maxwell heroically saves the day. Maxwell translates Faraday’s
plainspoken words into the mathematical equations that made modern communications
possible. Faraday’s embrace of Maxwell’s work continues the theme of mentoring at its
• Isaac Newton as an adult and Albert Einstein as a child were both fascinated by the puzzle of “action at a distance.” How did the sun tell the planets how to move without touching them, Newton wondered. Einstein questioned how the magnets moved the compass needle. How did Faraday answer these questions? How did he demonstrate the correctness of his answer through experiments?
• How did Faraday solve the question of continuous motion and what were the social
implications of his solution?
• Faraday was able to demonstrate the existence of an electromagnetic field, but
James Clark Maxwell was able to turn Faraday’s prose into mathematical equations.
How did this make possible the later inventions of radio and television?
• While humans did not discover the existence of fields until Faraday’s breakthrough,
other living things had been using them as navigational aids for millions of years.
Please give some examples.
Faraday’s Electromagnetic Lab: http://phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/faraday
(Please note: Requires PCs to run the Java Runtime Environment, which may require a
Relevant Scenes from COSMOS
• Act One: Another Aspect of the Same Mystery
• Act Two: The Attention of the Great Davy
• Act Three: Sir Humphrey’s Greatest Discovery
• Act Four: The Mysterious Invisible Forces
• Act Five: The Earth Itself is A Giant Magnet
• Act Six: Plain old Michael Faraday
For a deeper dive, more subjects touched on in Episode 10: !
• Michael Faraday
• Humphry Davy
• Invention of the motor, transformer, and generator
• Lines of force
• Biological magnetic field detectors
• Geological explanation of the Earth’s magnetic field
• Cosmic rays
• Solar wind
• Aurora borealis
• Maxwell equations
• Birth of electronic media
• Earth’s magnetic field
Written by Ann Druyan
Produced by Cosmos Studios
All rights reserved, Cosmos Studios. For distribution to FOX affiliates to accompany the original broadcast distribution of COSMOS: A SpaceTime Odyssey.