EPISODE REVIEW: Cosmos: A Spacetime Journey: “The Electric Boy” (Episode 10)

Kevin Long
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Before we begin, I’m going to do a shameless plug for my new book, “The Bones of an Angel,” which is available for sale on Smashwords here https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/433927 and on Amazon here http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00K348VGI  (Sorry for the long URL links. I don’t know how to embed them on this website). It just came out this month, it’s been consistently five-star reviewed, and it’s only a freakin’ buck ninety-nine. How can you lose?

Here endeth the commercial. Now on to the review of this episode:

This is the first episode of the new Cosmos that I have genuinely enjoyed, start to finish, with no real reservations or caveats. I think this may reflect a bias on my part, but we’ll come back to that later. Heretofore episodes of this series have been either flat out disjointed (See ep 1 and “Deeper, Deeper, Deeper still”) or have needlessly sensationalized things (“The Clean Room”) in order to tart up the character bits to add a bit of drama. On the whole, each episode has followed a format where the first half hour is about subject A, the second half hour is about subject be, and in the conclusion the two are tied together in some extrapolation – C – which validates both A and B. It’s an ok format, I use it sometimes myself, but it seems a bit out of place occasionally.

Tonight’s episode had no structural problems at all. It told a plain-and-simple rags-to-brilliance story of Michael Faraday, probably the second most brilliant man ever to live. The show pegs him as second to Newton only, and one up on Einstein, which I have no problem with. Though more people know the name via a fictional character on “Lost,” than know about him directly, Faraday is unquestionably the guy who got the modern world off its ass and chugging along on something other than steam. He invented the electric motor, he invented the electric generator (Not the same thing), he discovered the link between electromagnetic waves and light waves, and worked out exactly what magnetic lines of force were, and what they implied. Basically anything electrical in your house other than the batteries you’ve got lying around is wholly or partially based on work he did.

Born dirt poor, he quit school early on and took work in a bookbinder’s factory. He was largely self-educated, and was very interested in electricity, which was almost like magic in the day. While well documented and experimented with, no one had any idea what it WAS or why it did what it did. Through a combination of tenacity and ridiculously good luck (Or perhaps the ridiculously bad luck of others) he ended up working for one of the leading scientists of the age, whom he quickly eclipsed.  

Professionally, his only real problem was his inability to PROVE his more esoteric theories, you know, in a mathematical sense. He couldn’t do it. He was effectively illiterate with regards to math, and all his discoveries were a combination of his keen mind and preternaturally good experimentation skills. This was later overcome by a partnership with the famous mathematician Maxwell, which further aided the conversion of these new observations into the harnessing of the electron.

Lacking conflict, the episode makes much to do of Faraday’s presumed mental health problems. Essentially they say he started suffering from depression and significant memory losses in middle age, and never fully recovered. This is true, but a little misleading. His memory losses actually had been noted intermittently decades before, and while he had periods of depression or confusion, he was not by nature a depressed man. It’s always perilous to psychoanalyze a person from the past, and it’s more difficult here in that he seldom complained, and even rarer did he do it openly. All we know is that in his 40s he got very sick and non-functional for a period of about four years, and then he mostly recovered. Even this is a little hard to be clear on because most of the people he worked with in this period didn’t report anything unusual about him or his behavior, apart from a physical – not mental – ailment. Certainly he wasn’t crazy or suffering Alzheimer’s because he was still being offered prestigious scientific directorships in his mid-60s, and though he got sick a fair deal, his health wasn’t considered frail. Indeed, during his four-year illness (Whatever it was) the man generally insisted on walking as much as THIRTY MILES a day!

The closest thing you’ll get to a consensus is that he had some kind of minor damage to the hippocampal formations. These can result in a kind of short-term Amnesiac Syndrome which has more-or-less the same symptoms we’re told he exhibited. This is still just a guess, however, as even in his darkest days he remained mostly functional, and didn’t talk about it much, so we don’t know. And probably never will. It’s a fascinating question, though, and one that makes him a little bit more of a hero.

Now we come to my biases:

Firstly, this episode makes the first unambiguously pro-religion statement in the series: Faraday was a Christian Fundamentalist, and his faith was a large part of what drove him to figure out HOW God’s creation worked, because he assumed there must be a plan to it. Now, I’m a Christian myself, and the show’s passive-aggressive swipes at faith have kind of annoyed me. They seem beneath the dignity of Sagan (A man who’s not really a hero of mine), who generally just ignored such issues. I think he’d probably find that sort of thing petty in a series done in his name.

I was a fundamentalist for a long time, though I’m not anymore. Not in the common sense, anyway. Fundamentalism has become slang for anti-science, and honestly if you’ve read the goofball crap they claim is science when teaching kids in some of the more radical fundamentalists schools, you’ll see why. Even hippies would be ashamed of such nonsense. Just the same, no matter how misguided and shrill and annoying the Young Earth Creationists and Anti-Evolutionists are, I feel a little bit of pride in knowing that once upon a time, long ago, in the wee days of the movement, there were smart people who were allowed to use their brains to do mighty things, and that their faith in God – in MY God – helped the pursuit of science, rather than hindered it.

Secondly, I’ve got a pretty serious learning disability: Dyscalcula. It’s essentially Mathematical Dyslexia. I’m a well-educated man, a college graduate, and no real slouch intellectually, but I can barely add. I frequently forget my own age. I’ve had the same cellphone for more than two years, and have no idea what the phone number is. I have to write it down and carry it around with me to read to people when they need it. Where most people have mathematical ability stored in their brains, I have a lump of string cheese and a half-eaten bag of Munchos.

As a result, I have a natural affinity for anyone who can’t just walk up to the board and kick out the syllogistic jamz, so to speak. Now, I don’t mean to imply Faraday and I were brothers of the same affliction. We’re not. He was perfectly adequate at math, and probably could have been quite good at it had he a better education. He didn’t have a piece-of-crap brain like me. Just the same, I have an inherent fondness for people who can’t go about things the easy way, and have to find a workaround, or get others to help them, or do some combination of the both.

And that’s that: My first episode that I genuinely liked, with no real quibbles, even.

What did you folks think? Sound off in the comments!


Kevin Long is a well-reviewed Science Fiction author, who’s fourth book is called “The Bones of an Angel,” and it just came out this weekend! (Check it out here https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/433927 and here http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00K348VGI ) and he’s written three full-length anthologies. He used to blog under the name “Republibot 3.0,” but now that his stalker is dead, and he can afford to be less paranoid, he uses his real name. His personal website is here and his Smashwords page here. Or, if you prefer Amazon, his older books are here, here, and here. Check out his site, and buy one of his books. He’s got a wife and kids to support!