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The Whitewash Continues: Cosmos Conceals the Sources of Scientific Inspiration for Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell


Last night’s Cosmos episode, "The Electric Boy," was beautifully done, and quite moving. I got choked up more than once, especially by its telling of how the self-educated genius Michael Faraday (above) suddenly fell victim to memory loss and depression at age 49. Faraday persevered admirably despite it. At last he saw his ideas vindicated, recast in mathematical terms, by a younger man, James Clerk Maxwell.

Cosmos is unstinting in its praise for Faraday, without whose elucidation of electromagnetism and other discoveries we might still be living today, says Neil deGrasse Tyson, as our forebears did in the 19th century. (Actually, what Tyson says is that without him we could be living as they did in the 17th century — but given that Faraday was born in 1791 and died 1867, I don’t see how his never having lived would turn the clock back that far.)

Do I need to tell you what Tyson leaves out of this uplifting story? Yes, of course, it’s any admission of how Faraday and Maxwell were inspired in their science by their Christian commitments. In fact, you could hardly ask for two names of great scientists whose work was more influenced by passionate religious views, including the vision that nature reflects a single unified cosmic design.

Faraday’s faith is mentioned at the beginning but implicitly dismissed as having anything to do with his science. Cosmos shows us his impoverished family saying grace at the dinner table and explains that he "took [their] fundamentalist Christian faith to heart. It would always remain a source of strength, comfort and humility for him." That’s it — nothing more than a warm blanket on a cold night.

As Casey Luskin pointed out earlier, you can find helpful essays on Faraday and Maxwell and their respective religious beliefs here and here by Ian H. Hutchinson, professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT.

Hutchinson fills in the missing details, for instance:

One example of the influence of [Faraday’s] theological perspective on his science is Faraday’s preoccupation with nature’s laws. ‘God has been pleased to work in his material creation by laws’, he remarked, and ‘the Creator governs his material works by definite laws resulting from the forces impressed on matter.’ This is part of the designer’s art: ‘How wonderful is to me the simplicity of nature when we rightly interpret her laws’. But, as [Geoffrey] Cantor points out [in his book Michael Faraday: Sandemanian and Scientist], ‘the consistency and simplicity of nature were not only conclusions that Faraday drew from his scientific work but they were also metaphysical presuppositions that directed his research.’ He sought the unifying laws relating the forces of the world, and was highly successful in respect of electricity, magnetism, and light.

As for Maxwell, his faith is not mentioned in this episode at all, though he and Faraday, while coming from very different social and economic backgrounds, were equally devout. As Stephen Meyer recounts in Signature in the Cell, Maxwell insisted that a verse from Psalms, “The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein,” be inscribed in Latin over the entrance to the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University.

If Cosmos were simply a science textbook for high school or college students, then minimizing discussion of the personal commitments that drove the greatest scientists would be understandable. The emphasis, correctly, would be on explaining the science not elaborating other philosophical views.

But from the start, Neil Tyson has wanted to tell very personal stories of the men and women he portrays as scientific heroes. That’s smart. Clearly, his intention has been to excite young viewers, sparking their passion for science. And he has done a fine job as far as that goes. My own 12-year-old son is a fan of the series and complains when we have to skip an episode, noting exactly how many installments we have missed.

Given that, there is no good reason for obscuring the place of religion in scientific discovery, and Tyson knows it. Clearly, the issue was at the very front of executive producer Seth MacFarlane’s mind. Tyson has gone out of his way, indeed twisting the facts, to depict faith as an obstacle to science. But when acknowledging its vital role in scientific history would be most appropriate, Cosmos invariably falls silent.

I’m on Twitter. Find me @d_klinghoffer.

Image source: Fox TV.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.