Monday, 10 September 2012

Nikola Tesla, Michael Faraday and being a forgotten scientist

I was reading this article on the saving of Nikola Tesla's laboratory by a 'fan group'. The article refers to Tesla as being a 'forgotten genius' which I suppose to most of the population he may be. It brought to mind a conversation at the weekend regarding music and how some bands may be phenomenal but fail to make it big owing to not being perceived to be popular at the time.

Now I am not saying that a situation as subjective as music can be totally compared with science but it is odd how someone who did so much to do with the development of AC electricity - which Tesla worked on - is largely forgotten by the masses. Take someone like Michael Faraday a man who my old physics teacher introduced me to as being 'the greatest practical scientist ever'. Faraday was prolific with the things he worked on but apart from being on the £20 note most people would probably know nothing about him. However had he popularised his burner in the way Robert von Bunsen did then every schoolchild in England would know of him straight away - and believe that you have to use his equipment for a science practical to truly be an experiment! I must admit even though I am a biologist I do consider Faraday to be my ultimate hero in science so I might be biased towards him (yes above Darwin I know!).

So is it that some scientists have things named after them and so get remembered? Is it that if people slip out of social conscious then they no longer seem to get mentioned? Take Dian Fossey for example, she showed that Gorilla's were not the vicious beasts which they had been believed to be but gentle giants. She became an international celebrity due to her appearance on the cover of National Geographic and had a film made about her life. All in she was incredibly important for our understanding of one of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom and at the forefront of the conservation of Gorilla movements. However I would be very surprised if any of my students could tell me her name or why she might be famous. Which is very frustrating when some study comes out claiming girls don't have science heroes to look up to! Especially as people like Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin and Mary Anning are such excellent examples and were so so so important in their fields!

Maybe it is my inner geek that means that I remember people and what they have done for science, perhaps I am expecting too much from my students or the 'media' to make a bigger deal of them. I am also pretty sure that the majority of scientists do not do their craft to be remembered years down the line but because the question drives them. Which means that other 'role models' get pushed on young people - but that is a question and a blog for another time. Curiously though I wonder if Prof. Brian Cox wasn't so charismatic/cool/'rock and roll' would he be so in vogue at the BBC? (just a 'Wonder' as personally I really like Prof. Cox as a TV scientist).

I suppose that is the point, maybe, that people like Tesla and Faraday were too busy working on their research to worry about self promoting themselves in a way that someone like Thomas Edison did. Edison who famously started with an idea he thought he could market and then worked backwards to create something that would work and be sole via trial and error. This is not to say that that was a bad way to work but maybe because Edison was looking for things people would use all the time that might be one of the reasons he is well known and Tesla is not?

After all Faraday spent 10 years perfecting electromagnetic induction and its not like that has any marketable value that would make him a household name.


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