A mind bogglingly stupid statement!

In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald the British “poster boy of pop science”TM made the following series of statements:

“When you’ve got difficult economic times, you see governments saying, ‘Well, maybe we should cut back on this kind of blue-sky stuff.’ It’s just drivel. Imagine if that had happened in 1799 when the Royal Institute [sic] was being set up. Then, in the worst-case scenario, you don’t get electricity.” [my emphasis]

Let us take a brief look at a list of some of the prominent names associated with the evolution of the science of electricity between 1600 and 1900. This list is of course by no means exhaustive:

William Gilbert, Otto von Guericke, Robert Boyle, Stephen Gray, Francis Hauksbee, John Desaguliers, C. F. du Fay, Abbé Nollet, Pieter van Musschenbroek, Benjamin Franklin, Charles-Augustin de Coulomb, Luigi Galvani, Alessandro Volta, Hans Christian Ørsted, André-Marie Ampère, Michael Faraday, Georg Simon Ohm, James Clerk Maxwell, Galileo Ferraris, Oliver Heaviside, Charles Parsons, Joseph Swan, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Ernst Werner von Siemens and William Thomson.

Your quiz question for today, which of the men in this list were not involved with the Royal Institution?

Now some of you might accuse me of just being nasty to the “poster boy of pop science”TM, as he was obviously referring to Michael Faraday who did work for the Royal Institution from 1813 (unlike any of the others) and who is normally credited with having invented the electric generator or more accurately discovered the principle of electromagnetic induction on which the generator is based. So is the “poster boy of pop science”TM right after all?

Well, the question is, as always, given the general developments in electrical research at the beginning of the 1830s, might it not be possible that someone else would have discovered this principle and thus we would have had electricity with or without Faraday? Are we going to replace one dubious hypothetical with another one? Well, actually no! We just have to take a somewhat closer look at the history of electricity to discover that is exactly what happened.

Both the Italian Francesco Zantedeschi and the American Joseph Henry discovered the principle of electromagnetic induction before Faraday. Zantedeschi published his discovery, which however went unnoticed, while Henry first published when he realised that he had been beaten to the punch by Faraday. If this wasn’t enough to show that we would have had electricity if Faraday and the Royal Institution had never existed the Hungarian inventor Ányos István Jedlik actually invented a generator, superior to Faraday’s, several years before Faraday made his legendary discovery.

As I’ve said on several occasions in the past statements in the history of science and technology along the lines of if it hadn’t been for X we wouldn’t have Y are almost inevitably wrong and are on close inspection likely to leave their utterer looking pretty stupid.


Filed under History of Physics, History of science, Myths of Science

29 responses to “A mind bogglingly stupid statement!

  1. Rebekah Higgitt

    I think what worried me more about this statement was the suggestion that the early Royal Institution was about ‘blue skies’ research rather than being, as it was, thoroughly utilitarian in focus. Likewise, as if Faraday’s work was following pure curiosity, rather than his work coming out of an environment based on (commercial) chemical analysis, and problem-solving for Trinity House and the Admiralty. What is being pushed is ‘linear model’ stuff (pay for us to do blue skies research or you won’t get useful things like electricity). What actually happened was a hugely talented researcher did some very important scientific research because he was being paid to look into specific and practical problems. It is a bad science policy argument based on a poor understanding of history.

    • I thought I would leave that blog post to you 😉

      • Rebekah Higgitt

        Think I’m waiting to see if this is the approach taken in the forthcoming TV series….

    • I wonder if this comment doesn’t tilt a little too far in the other direction. I’m thinking specifically of the sentence, “What actually happened was a hugely talented researcher did some very important scientific research because he was being paid to look into specific and practical problems.” (emphasis added).

      Granted the point about the founding of the RI. And Faraday certainly made money for them from doing chemical analyses, not to mention his work on optical glass and steel.

      On the other hand, all the bios I’ve read (Cantor’s, Hirschfeld’s, the Cantor-Gooding-James book, and I’m in the middle of L.Pearce Williams’ work) agree that Faraday’s research leading to electromagnetic induction was curiosity driven, not pursuing any practical application. Indeed, he brought his work on optical glass to an end precisely because it left him no time for pure research.

      I rather phrase it, Faraday had the resources of the RI to draw on for his pure research; the RI derived funding both from commercial services, and from the government, which in turn expected the RI to furnish help with many practical problems. Faraday participated extensively in providing these services.

      Also let’s not forget one major source of funding for the RI: Faraday was one of the rock-star scientists of his day, earning the RI a pretty penny for lectures!

      By the way, Bruce Hunt’s recent book Pursuing Power and Light: Technology and Physics from James Watt to Albert Einstein gives a nicely balanced treatment of the interplay between technology and “pure” research.

      • Rebekah Higgitt

        I’m not saying he wasn’t curious, but the direction his interests went was considerably more influenced by his practical work than simply having the RI’s laboratory. I like this from James, from an online Faraday biography emphasising the engineering and practical work (http://www.engineering-timelines.com/who/Faraday_M/faradayMichael8.asp):

        “In his early [electro-magnetic] experiments, Faraday used both a piece of glass that he had made during the glass work he did in the late 1820s and some powerful lamps he had been testing for Trinity House (see lighthouses). This materials basis for Faraday’s discoveries illustrates, as does so much of his work, the closeness of the practice of his science theory with his practical work.”

        This illustrates very nicely how questions, experiments and investigations get thrown up within frameworks focused on practical and technological investigations.

  2. Documentary series: “The Day the Universe Changed,” by James Burke. While it is quite certain that, as of the time cited, electromagnetic induction was multitracked and bound to be discovered, as well as high pressure steam engines and many other inventions, they depended on the mindset of blue-sky science.

    • High pressure steam engines did not depend on a blue-skies mind set but were, like all developments in the steam engine since 1750 at the latest, the result of a systematic research programme driven by industrial demand.

      • Going from condensation steam engines (Newcomen and Watt) to high pressure (Trevithick and Evans) was immediately obvious to Trevithick, Evans, Rumsey, etc. Watt balked at the danger. But Evans, for sure, though with no formal education, cited Boyle, and appears to have incorporated Charles’ Law with it. It is obvious that he used the American Philosophical Society … one of Franklin’s greatest contributions, plus the Library Company of Philadelphia. The existence of these two institutions I cite as evidence that Franklin and others believed in the broad notion of the potential for science, and the broad desemination of scientific knowledge … a “blue sky” notion.

      • There is nothing blue-skies about the American Philosophical Society in the 18th century. Like many similar organizations in this period it was totally heavily (see comment by M Weiss below) pragmatic and orientated towards practical researched solutions to real technical problems. A good example of this approach is The Birmingham Lunar Society in England of which Franklin was also a member. To quote Wikipedia on the APS:

        By 1746 the Society had lapsed into inactivity. In 1767, however, it was revived, and, on January 2, 1769, it united with the American Society for Promoting Useful Knowledge under the name “American Philosophical Society Held at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge”. Benjamin Franklin was elected the first president. During this time, the society maintained a standing Committee on American Improvements

        Blue skies thinking means research for research’s sake without an aim or an intended use.

        The desire for a high pressure steam engine, and Watt was right in thinking that in the 18th century the technology was not advance enough (many exploded boilers!), was the pragmatic desire for steam powered vehicles. No blue skies thinking involved here.

      • It is not clear to me that high pressure boilers were not feasible in the 18th century. It wasn’t clear to Rumsey, who failed to convince Watt that he could do it. Rumsey had a scheme for using relatively small diameter wrought iron tubes, made in the same manner as gun barrels, to boil water. He had leak problems and his configuration would have been hard to clean, but he was on the right track. Evans found his own approach, again pushing the available technology to find a workable solution.

        As to the American Philosophical Society being blue sky or not, I think we have a difference in definition, and our modern perspective is part of it. Evans, for example, intensely disliked being accused of being a “visionary”, which at the time was like being called delusional. He saw practical applications for steam power at a time when perhaps 9 other people in North America would have seen any use for it at all. Meanwhile, Jefferson and Franklin engaged in the study of basic science, sure practical use would come of it but with no guarantee, and both promoted broad public education.

      • The metallurgy in the 18th century was not up to producing high pressure boilers of a necessary standard. As far as I can tell Rumsey produced one functioning prototype. How his boilers would have functioned in productions is an open question. Even during the first half of the 19th century the failure rate in high pressure boilers and other similar metal constructions was very high but that’s what techical progress is about.

        I think you will find that the principle emphasis in the educational schemes of both Franklin and Jefferson was very much towards the practical. They wanted to produce engineers rather than pure scientists.

      • Evans did not use tube boilers, and steamboats were built on Evans ideas. Had Rumsey’s approach been adopted early, there would not have been so many explosions. The metallurgy was not the issue. Wrought iron was sufficiently strong (with a much higher yield than modern A36 structural steel) and rolling mills for plate and skelps were producing in sufficient quantity. America was exporting 30,000 tons of iron a year even by the Revolution.

        Jefferson opened the University of Virginia in 1817, and it had no College of Engineering for decades. I’m a SF writer, and have a story just written in which I speculate on the changes to history had he had the forethought to do so. He knew all the US steam inventors, and had issued patents to four of them, plus the mill patent to Evans. He loved science, but that failed to extend to appreciating practical engineers.

      • The metallurgy was not the issue. Wrought iron was sufficiently strong (with a much higher yield than modern A36 structural steel) and rolling mills for plate and skelps were producing in sufficient quantity. America was exporting 30,000 tons of iron a year even by the Revolution.

        It is not the strength of wrought iron that is the problem but rather its malleability or ductility that leads to problems in the construction of high pressure boilers as is rather nicely described with a very suitable American historical example in the Wikipedia article on the subject:

        For most purposes, ductility is a more important measure of the quality of wrought iron than tensile strength. In tensile testing, the best irons are able to undergo considerable elongation before failure. Higher tensile wrought iron is brittle.
        Because of the large number of boiler explosions on steamboats, the U.S. Congress passed legislation in 1830 which approved funds for correcting the problem. The treasury awarded a $1500 contract to the Franklin Institute to conduct a study. As part of the study Walter R. Johnson and Benjamin Reeves conducted strength tests on various boiler iron using a tester they had built in 1832 based on the design of one by Lagerhjelm in Sweden. Unfortunately, because of the misunderstanding of tensile strength and ductility, this work did little to reduce failures.
        The importance of ductility was recognized by some very early in the development of tube boilers, such as Thurston’s comment:

        ‘If made of such good iron as the makers claimed to have put into them “which worked like lead,” they would, as also claimed, when ruptured, open by tearing, and discharge their contents without producing the usual disastrous consequences of a boiler explosion.’

        Various 19th century investigations of boiler explosions, especially those by insurance companies, found causes to be most commonly the result of operating boilers above the safe pressure range, either to get more power or due to defective boiler pressure relief valves and difficulties of obtaining reliable indication of pressure and water level. Poor fabrication was also a common problem. Also, the thickness of the iron in steam drums was low by modern standards.
        By the late 19th century when metallurgists were able to better understand what properties and processes made good iron, it was being displaced by steel. Also, the old cylindrical boilers with fire tubes were displaced by water tube boilers, which are inherently safer.

        He [Jefferson] knew all the US steam inventors, and had issued patents to four of them, plus the mill patent to Evans. He loved science, but that failed to extend to appreciating practical engineers.

        This paragraph contains contains a major contradiction in terms. Steam inventors including Evans are engineers and not scientists. Apparently Jefferson did appreciate engineers.

      • We’re both guilty of thread drift, you know!
        Curiously, that Jefferson knew the inventors and issued patents does not mean he appreciated them. I expect he thought they were greedy pests. Jefferson personally served as patent reviewer because, as Secretary of State, it was on his plate. Patent law was still vague and his view of patents was very different from what the inventors thought they were for. Franklin refused to patent his ideas, sharing them freely. Jefferson had a couple of patents but also shared his intellectual property freely, and felt that patents were a way of sharing information (the “plough of least resistance” being a good example). Most inventors felt otherwise. Evans was especially notorious for defending his IP aggressively, including sueing Jefferson. John Stevens fought with both Fulton and Evans over patents and/or monopolies.

        The four steam patents issued by Jefferson were all issued on a single day, after years of dispute as to what constituted a patentable idea. Jefferson was clearing his plate of this batch of problems, before managing to shuck the entire responsibility for issuing patents off on a newly-created office.

        As for wrought iron’s adequacy, let me warn you that you’re dealing with a guy with 15 years in the materials testing business, and I’ve actually tested 19th century wrought iron. Peculiar stuff … elongation is actually pretty good but the fractures look like broken wood rather than a classic cup and cone fracture. The real problem with boilers then and now is “boiler creep”, which was not well-studied until, IIRC, the 20th century. More of a problem was methods of fabrication, which were having to be invented as they went along. Tube boilers were a lot harder to make, so the Evans-style big boilers with a chimney in them were used. But Evans boilers might have 500 gallons of 140 psi boiling water in them, making them explode like a keg of gunpowder if they ruptured. The equivalent Rumsey boiler might hold only 20 quarts of pressurized boiling water, making it relatively benign. Evans did understand “hoop stress” and recognized that larger boilers were more challenging to materials, but thought he was designing with a safety factor of 10. Nobody understood the deterioration of iron under boiler conditions over time … nobody had tried it.

        Go back in time and recognize how radical the early steam inventions … say the Fitch and Rumsey steam boats circa 1787 … actually were. Steam was only being used in massive condensation-driven engine in fixed installations to pump water. The technology either did not exist or was emergent. For Evans to hear about the Schuler Mine Newcomen engine, immediately recognize that pressurized steam was superior, and make the leap to imagining steam ships and steam carriages in an age of canvas sails and horse carriages was pure science fiction at that time. Don’t judge their imagination by our hindsight.

        The basic question here is if we should be so dismissive of institutions at the time (1780-1800) which promoted science … they did not have our experience of science producing fantastic leaps in industry. It was a blue-sky act of faith to believe that science had this potential, and it was an absolute change in mindset. We look back and it seems obvious. Try looking forward from the history they knew.

  3. I suppose the next thing you’ll be telling us is that, had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter, it wouldn’t have made a ha’p’orth of difference!

  4. But when would the Europeans have invented gunpowder?

  5. @Rebekah Higgitt:
    I grant that a large part of Faraday’s success depended on the superb training he acquired working on practical problems for his first 18 years or so at the RI.

    I also agree that “questions, experiments and investigations get thrown up within frameworks focused on practical and technological investigations.” Fundamental scientific discoveries frequently have practical technological parents.

    But is his discovery of the magneto-optical effect an instance of, as you put it, his interests being “considerably more influenced by his practical work than simply having the RI’s laboratory”?

    Let’s just look at the webpage you link to. His optical glass research had an eminently practical purpose, but he brought that research to a close by 1830. The research program resulting in the magneto-optical effect, 25 years later, was not driven by any such practical goal. He was investigating the basic nature of matter, magnetism, and electricity. He was not trying to create better optical glass.

    The use of optical glass in this discovery looks more like a case of having the resources of the RI to draw on for his pure research, at least to me.

    I don’t mean to suggest that Faraday put up diamagnetic membrane in his head, pure research on the left, technology on the right. And of course his work on practical problems by no means came to an end in 1830. He had practical interests, and “blue-sky” interests.

    Stepping back from this specific example, I certainly agree that Brian Cox’s statement is profoundly silly.

    As for the meme that the best way to foster technological progress is to throw gobs of money at pure research — yes, that’s ridiculous, and it’s still quite prevalent.

    • Michael Weiss

      Oops! 15 years, not 25.

    • Rebekah Higgitt

      Looks like we’re essentially in agreement – it is mainly a question of emphasis, I think.

      • @Rebekah Higgitt:
        Yes, it looks like it. Would you agree with this summary?

        Faraday pursued both “blue-sky” and practical research extensively. The RI fully supported him in both these endeavors, and he in turn supported the RI with this work. These two aspects of his career interleaved and interacted, and cannot be torn asunder without doing violence to his biography and the history of the RI.

        On the broader question of blue-sky research, I like Thony’s definition on a parallel comment thread: “Blue skies thinking means research for research’s sake without an aim or an intended use.”

        The figure of Franklin, a supremely practical guy in many ways, shows there is no conflict between doing both — he certainly didn’t embark on his electrical researches with the plan of inventing the lightning rod. (That does make me wonder about Thony’s claim that the 18th C. APS was “totally pragmatic”; had he written “heavily pragmatic”, I’d have no qualms.)

        Finally, one of the main applications of electricity, throughout the 18th and 19th C., was pop-sci entertainment — and very profitable too!

        Of course, by this criterion, even string theory doesn’t count as “blue sky”…

  6. Very general explanations of how science progresses are rather like a book on how to drive a car that insists that the crucial thing is to steer to the left and then bolsters its case by listing instances when steering left was indeed a good idea. What is more important, blue sky research or the attempt to solve specific practical problems? The correct answer is “Yes!” To revert to my metaphor, just as the real key to driving is not to do one thing or anther but to avoid running into things, what has advanced the understanding of nature is bound to circumstances. You don’t have to be much of a historian to assemble instances when high theory proved to be damned useful and others where what turned the trick was screwing around in the machine shop. The Hell of it is that you generally can’t guess in advance what’s going to work.

    In his book the Sciences of the Artificial, Herbert Simon included a figure showing the highly irregular route taken by a foraging ant. Simon’s point was that one cannot understand the various turns and twists by appeal to some secret law of ant psychology. The complexity was a result of the topography traversed, not the methodology of the myrmidon, which was presumably pretty straightforward.

  7. @Thony C:
    Glad I could contribute in a small way to the thread on steam engines. Incidentally, I’m learning quite a bit from it.

    While I’m on a roll: you wrote, “I think you will find that the principle emphasis in the educational schemes of both Franklin and Jefferson was very much towards the practical. They wanted to produce engineers rather than pure scientists.”

    Certainly both Franklin and Jefferson were eminently practical men. However, your comment almost makes it sound like they had little regard for any non-utilitarian value to science. Did you intend that implication?

    I’m not talking about the “blue-sky research yields great inventions” meme, rather the value of science as part of a liberal education — as, for example, when Jefferson called Liberty “the first-born daughter of science”.

  8. Come to think of it, isn’t the dichotomy pure scientist vs. engineer a bit anachronistic for the late 18th – early 19th C.?

    • It is very anachronistic indeed but I didn’t want to (re)start that debate here in the comments column. For scientist read natural philosopher. 😉

      • Michael Weiss

        I brought it up not out of pedantry, but because it seems relevant. For one thing, it would explain why U. Virginia didn’t establish a separate engineering school until decades later.

        For another, contemplating the careers of Franklin and Faraday, I started wondering if the idea of a “pure” natural philosopher, as someone who wouldn’t touch practical applications on principle, would have even made sense to Jefferson.

  9. Much of this discussion may stem from personal definitions. As I mentioned, I can point you to a conversation Oliver Evans had with a young man in 1818, in which he complained that Benjamin Latrobe had accused Evans of being a visionary. Today we call that a high compliment. In Evans’ time it meant he was having hallucinations. I sense that “blue sky” is being used by some here as a grossly derogatory term akin to “useless and wasteful to the extreme.” To me it means investigations with no clear goal in mind but knowledge, but with the understanding that good things come from more complete knowledge.

    As an example of a this point of view, I used to work for Robert W. Bussard, a fusion physicist best known in SF circles for the interstellar ramjet concept. I complained one day about the proposed budget for the Superconducting Supercollider, noting that the billions to be spent on that would buy an awful lot of more useful science. I mean, what’s the commercial application for Higgs Bosons, anyway? What did they expect to get from it? His response was that it was the only project worth doing exactly because they had no idea what it would discover. Virtually every other proposed research program was of little value because the usual strategy is to make small increments of progress, taking little risk and only proposing to discover what you pretty much already know.

    So now, for me, “blue sky” means so new you have no idea where it will lead, not that you want to engage in useless research. It is not “applied research”, intended to solve a particular short-term question or problem, but it may very well provide answers to questions we didn’t even know to ask.

    And since then we’ve discovered behaviors of the Universe that imply the existence of two things we know only by their mysterious names: dark matter and dark energy. Between these two things, it turns out we’ve apparently missed about 96% of physics … didn’t even recognized that more physics was out there. Maybe investigations like the LHC actually will turn out to have a critical use … get us to the stars, even.

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