Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting the Fourth of July. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, we’ll hear about a big Fourth of July guy, Benjamin Franklin with his story and author Joyce Chaplin, plus we’ll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news.
First up Joyce Chaplin. We originally played a much shorter, edited version of this interview on the April 26th, 2006, podcast, but there was a great deal of Ben Franklin conversation we didn't have time for in that episode and since it's the Fourth of July, here's the entire discussion we had last April. To put things into context, 2006 marked Franklin's 300th birthday. Of course, in addition to being a diplomat and publisher, he was a first-rate scientist; and Harvard historian Joyce Chaplin had come out with a Franklin biography that concentrated on his science. I called Chaplin at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Steve: Dr. Chaplin, thanks for talking to us.
Chaplin: Thank you.
Steve: First the name of the book: The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius. Let's tell everybody that you are not in anyway affiliated with Scientific American, that's just a coincidence with the book titles.
Chaplin: Exactly! Franklin has been called an American so often and the first American that I wanted to remind everyone that the science had something to do with his identity, so it was an independent finding, I swear.
Steve: And why The First Scientific American though?
Chaplin: Because science was so important not only to his identity, but to the later career that he had as an American founder. He really had
a much more prominence and influence as a man of science than he would have otherwise and certainly he had the most prominence and influence of any American of his time because of the work that he had done on science, hence First Scientific American.
Steve: Now April 29th, 250 years ago, Franklin was elected to the Royal Society of London, the most prestigious scientific society in the world at the time, and pretty prestigious to this date—maybe some people still consider it the most prestigious. So what earned him that election and why was that such a big deal in everything that happened after that in Franklin’s life?
Chaplin: He was elected because of his work on electricity. His experiments and observations on electricity had been published in London, the first edition in 1751. On the basis of that, the Royal Society awarded Franklin its coveted Copley medal, still a very high award, which Franklin received in 1753, and that was followed up with his election to The Royal Society in 1756—and that was an amazing honor. First of all, it was rare for somebody who is from humble birth like Franklin to be so elected. Most of the time, this is an honor that went to gentlemen who had been born gentlemen—that is, fairly high up on a social scale. It really did prove that Franklin was self-made as a man of science in a very significant way. Also, the vote was reported have been unanimous, which was extraordinarily rare as well and the capital laws of Royal Society initially waived any fees for his admission and instead simply entered him on the rolls as a member, so quite an extraordinary honor and done to recognize Franklin's work on electricity. After that point, the honors never stopped. Franklin kept getting elected to other societies.
He got honors increased. Nearly every kind of accolade was given to him, and really, on the strength of that as well he began to get important political positions. He had had some political influence before, but nothing like what he got afterward. Most significantly he became Postmaster General for the colonies, a position for which he had really used his network in and out of the Royal Society in London in order to guarantee that he would get that job; and after that point his political influence really increased as well. So, in some ways, it's that publication of experiments and observations and then the Royal Society's recognition of that important publication that made Franklin what he was.
Steve: So, it's fairly safe to say that without Franklin the scientist, we don't have Franklin, the elder statesman of the American Revolution.
Chaplin: Exactly! Again, he came from a rather humble background. He had pulled himself up in Philadelphia, was doing fairly well, but he would never have become famous and influential without that work in science, and he would never certainly have had the international reputation that would have allowed him to represent the United States in Paris quite [so] successfully.
Steve: You've written extensively about an area of Franklin's science that may be as not as well known as the electricity, and that's his charting of the Gulf Stream. Can you talk about that?
Chaplin: Yes, that was a very interesting and long-lasting episode in Franklin's life. He was fascinated with the sea. He wanted to run away and be a sailor as a boy, and he didn't do that, but he did manage to investigate the ocean, really, throughout his life. Accommodating with his charting of the Gulf Stream, he and a cousin, Timothy Folger, did the first chart of the Gulf Stream in 1768, and he did subsequently two more charts of the Gulf Stream after that. I think their work is very interesting in the way that it shows that science was very embedded in politics and public culture at that time. Franklin charted the Gulf Stream and wrote about it initially because he was Postmaster General and he was worried about the time that it took to post the mail to get back and forth across the Atlantic—and the Gulf Stream helped explain why it took longer going from England to the colonies than the reverse. So that's the way in which science was very much part of Franklin's political life—his life in public affairs—and that's really true all of his science, though I think the work on the oceans makes that immediately apparent in a way that perhaps electrical experiments don't.
Steve: That's really interesting. I had no idea that one's political station and the direction of one's science might be connected in that way.
Chaplin: Well, I think that today we think of scientists as being very specialized and in some ways cut off from other fields, but in Franklin's days in the 18th century, science was really part of public culture—scientific demonstrations were done in public, a wide array of people took an interest in science. Probably [that] the British monarch best trained in science ever was George the III adds just to the indication again of the fascination
that that science held for people. Another good example is just where Franklin seemed to have done most of his electrical experiments. He and the other members of the Library Company of Philadelphia who did these experiments seemed to have done them in part of the Pennsylvania State House, now—Independence Hall—and that I think is just a wonderful example of how a public building, a government building, could be loaned basically as a laboratory in order for people to do science; and it shows the way in which science is really not cut off from the rest of public life in a way that obviously it would be now.
Steve: Right! Although we do
, do anthrax experiments in the U.S. capital.
Chaplin: Oh dear! (laughs) I wouldn't want to claim that Franklin's experiments were the ancestor of that.
Steve: (laughs) Right, right! I just wanted to ask you, speaking of this public culture and science thing, I have read, you know, Bertrand Russell wrote about the fact that some members of the clergy were upset with Franklin's electricity experiments. They thought he was sort of messing about with—when he was doing lightning experiments—messing about in the realm of what should be the province of the religious rather than human beings. So what was the situation there? Was the clergy really upset?
Chaplin: Well, I think the takeaway point here is that the clergy was involved and that science and religion were seein as areas that really commented on each other and in some ways went hand in hand. It's remarkable the number of men of science in both Britain and America who were clergymen and who felt that they were, in a sense, completely qualified to do science; though it may have also influenced the way that they looked at religion. Now there is a sense in the present day I think that science and religion are great enemies and are constantly in conflict. I really think that this is the view that we have, post-Darwin. It was really in the Victorian era that science and religion were firmly parted and then pitted against each other, that's a subsequent view that some people, including Bertrand Russell, have used to talk about the past—the eras before the Victorian era—but it's a fundamental misunderstanding. Franklin himself believed that—as was true of many of people at that time—that science was really a way of appreciating God's handiwork that the creation, the physical creation, was one set of wonders after the other; and then it was almost an act of worship to understand what the natural creation was. What really impresses me about Franklin and science is that he really thought that it was important for people to understand what nature was and how it worked even though he believed in the conventional Christian idea that at the end of days all of the material creation would be destroyed. And so it is a wonderful act of faith, and his idea that by comprehending nature you comprehend God even though the physical creation was finite.
Steve: And so to that specific point, there was not widespread outrage at Franklin and his electricity experiments?
Chaplin: No, there would have been again commentary by some of the clergy, but I think that actually most of the commentary and even the critical commentary about Franklin's electrical work was done by several men of science, who criticized the definition that Franklin gave of electricity. I think there was a much more important debate and what the religious men were saying was in some sense out-shadowed by that.
Steve: So the kind of outrage that Bertrand Russell [describes]—[he] quotes one clergyman and that's probably the equivalent of quoting Pat Robertson today and saying that he speaks for all clergy?
Chaplin: I don't know which clergyman Russell would have quoted, and I don't want to insult that clergyman (laughs) by saying that he would have been more or less fundamental than others.
Steve: It was a Dr. Price of Boston who was particularly upset with Franklin.
Chaplin: Well, there was commentary again by the clergy, but I really do think that focussing on that is anachronistic. Again, that the view that men of science and men of faith were a completely different camps and pitted against each other is very, very misleading.
Steve: Dr. Fra &number 133; (laughs) Almost called you Dr. Franklin, does that happen a lot? (laughs)
Chaplin: Sometimes. I would say that I can't accept the compliment. (laughs)
Steve: "The gout comes along with the honors," is that a real quote or is that just in the movie 1776?
Chaplin: The gout comes along with the honors!
Steve: Right! Do you know the quote?
Chaplin: Well! He had a whole dialogue between himself and the gout. I wonder whether that was [where] it comes from.
Steve: In the movie, in the broadway show, one of the new delegates says, "Do you have the honor of being Mr. Franklin?" "Yes and the gout comes along with the honor."
Chaplin: (laughs) There you go, but we can blame that on the Royal Society too, I guess.
Steve: I am always under the impression that of all of them, he was the one that you'd most like to hang out with today.
Chaplin: Possibly. You know what's very odd about Franklin is everyone at that time comment[s] on how taciturn he is, that he is very [quiet]
quite, he was not a good public speaker, not given, you know, to the loud anecdote over the dinner table; and that even in one-on-one he really got people to talk a lot to him without reciprocating, and so that gives a different sense of him I think.
Steve: Sure, and it probably explains why so many people thought he was so interesting.
Chaplin: The mystery was always there, I think, and it's kind of a power play to get the other person to keep talking while you listen; and of course he was a master prose stylist. He knew how to use words, but in some ways he'd let other people keep babbling until he could get his famously laconic wisdom; and but then I think he took a lot of what he learned in conversation and then put it down on paper when he had control over it. So—but people said, he was also famously charming. And in some ways, I shouldn't say that he let people babble, but he made people talk probably in a way where they felt like they were giving him wisdom, they were saying interesting things to the great man; and so everyone loved to talk to him. But interestingly, I mean, were it such a garrulous culture that—I am not sure that personality would have a good press these days, but I mean, just the range of things he knew and everyone he knew, and the famous charm which again might look dated [now]
out, but certainly worked back then, that would have been a reason enough for me to hang out with him.
Steve: Do you think that his early training as a newspaper guy was responsible for learning how to just get other people to keep talking or is that a modern journalistic thing?
Chaplin: Well, I do wonder—I think that you can explain a lot of things about Franklin by the fact that, you know, he had to get the newspaper out regularly, make sure he printed things that would sell; and so he had a very keen eye to what could be news, what would pay, and what would really let him get ahead, so even though he had started the printing business in late 1740s,
but he had been in it for decades; and I really do think that that was a formative experience and had a reason.
Steve: Dr. Chaplin, thank you very much for talking to us today.
Chaplin: Oh, thank you so much.
Excerpts from the movie, 1776:
What are you staring at?
I am just seeing the great man before
Good lord, Do you have the honor to be Dr. Franklin?
Yes I have that honor. Unfortunately, the gout accompanies the honor.
Uh &number 133; been living too high again, eh, Pappy
Oh Stephen, I only wish King George felt like my big toe—all over.
Steve: Joyce Chaplin's book about Franklin is called The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius and the Bertrand Russell essay that discusses Franklin and Dr. Price is called "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish". Just Google that phrase, "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish", and it comes right up. We'll be right back.
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Steve: Now it's time to play TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS.
Story number 1: Eating 30 calories a day of dark chocolate reduces blood pressure.
Story number 2: Some people sat in lines for days to be among the first owners of the new Apple iPhones.
Story number 3: A new mathematical model of the universe indicates a Big Bounce from a previous universe rather than a Big Bang from nothing.
And story number 4: College football players have three times the risk of catastrophic head injury than do high school football players.
Time is up.
Story number 1 is true. 30 calories worth of dark chocolate a day slightly reduces blood pressure according [to] a study in [the] July 4th issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. It's probably the polyphenols and the cocoa that do the trick, although the researchers worry that the fat and sugar in the usual chocolate bars will more than outweigh the good effects of cocoa's polyphenols.
You know that story number 2 is true. People lined up for days to get an iPhone
(babbling sounds)[blah blah blah], and our forefathers fought a war for independence.
Story number 3 is true, a new model of the universe proposed by Penn State physicist combines quantum physics with general relativity to come up with a Big Bounce instead of a Big Bang. The model does away with troubling zero volume and infinite energy at the start of the Big Bang. For more, see the July 2nd edition of the daily Sciam podcast, 60-Second Science and J.R. Minkel's July 1st article on our Web site called "Echoes from Before the Big Bang May Be Inaudible."
All of which means that story number 4 about college football players being at greater risk of catastrophic head injury than high schoolers is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Because a report in the July issue of the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that high school players are at three times the risk of college football players. Possible causes are that the younger brain is more susceptible to injury and that high school players who had already suffered minor brain injuries are back in action too soon because of few team doctors at the high school level.
Steve: Well that's it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. You can write to us at podcast@SciAm.com, check out news articles at www.SciAm.com and the daily SciAmpodcast, [60-Second Science] is at the Web site and at iTunes. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.
Adams: But, I say you should write it Franklin, yes you ...
Franklin: Hell, no!
Adams: Yes, you, Dr. Franklin, you ...
but, you, but, you, but ...
Franklin: Mr. Adams, but, Mr. Adams
The things I write are only light extemporania;
I won't put politics on paper; it's a mania
So I refuse to use the pen in Pennsylvania
Others: Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania, refuse to use the pen—(song ends)