By Jacob Roberts
In 1825 Michael Faraday started a series of science lectures at the Royal Institution aimed at young people. Faraday gave 19 talks, including a series about the chemical history of the candle. It was so popular that it was published in a book still in print today. The magic of Faraday’s lectures was built on two devices: he used everyday objects familiar to his audience (such as a candle) to explain abstract scientific concepts, and he employed the tools of theater to amaze people, capturing their imagination with demonstrations of combustion, electricity, and magnetism. To many it must have looked like magic. But the real trick Faraday pulled was showing people that it wasn’t magical at all; these were real applications of math and science that anyone could understand. What came to be known as the “Christmas lectures” started a trend of accessible science.
The Christmas lectures are still being given at the Royal Institution. Modern science personalities, such as Carl Sagan, have taken over Faraday’s job as academic liaison to the public. Sagan’s 1977 lecture contextualized the planets in the solar system, showing how small and fragile Earth really is. In many ways Sagan illuminated astronomy for nonscientists just as Faraday popularized chemistry. While Faraday’s platform was a podium in a lecture hall, Sagan became famous for his books, television series, and willingness to tackle topics that few academics would touch, such as extraterrestrial life.
At school, I always made sure to take at least one science course each semester in part because of Sagan’s work. He captured my imagination when I read about the Golden Record he helped create for Voyager spacecraft, probes that were sent careening into interstellar space in 1977 and continue to send data back to Earth. The Golden Record was encoded with a message to other sentient species with operating instructions that could be decoded using numbers associated with the hydrogen atom. Sagan postulated that if we had anything in common with other intelligent life across the galaxy, it would be our understanding of the universal truths of chemistry and physics.
William Sanford Nye, better known as Bill Nye the Science Guy, was arguably more influential in my youth than even Sagan. Nye’s television show and lecture appearances have always been close in spirit to Faraday’s original Christmas lectures. Bill Nye the Science Guy focused on experimentation and debunked common misconceptions in science while encouraging viewers to always remain skeptical, all while providing a healthy dose of humor. In a classic example of Nye’s show, he explained static electricity in a (literally) hands-on experiment.
Nye’s commitment to rationalism inspired an entire generation of people who grew up in the 1990s and are now entering college and the working world. A recent article in the New York Times describes the fever pitch his presence created on the campus of Iowa State University, representative of the celebrity he still commands more than a decade after his show stopped production. His subject matter has grown up along with his fans. Today he is a public advocate and teacher of science, speaking out against critics of global warming and evolution.
Introducing science to children at an early age is a necessary part of creating a responsible, intelligent society. People like Faraday, Sagan, and Nye are the bridge between academics and the general public. I wish more professional scientists would spend time teaching and telling stories. Until they do, inspiration for science can come from anywhere. I didn’t learn how a point on the outside of a rotating record moves faster than a point on the inside at school; I learned it from reading Calvin and Hobbes. So did this guy.