Scientific inquiry: A waste of time or the ultimate reality show?

Ben Franklin just had too much time on his hands. I mean, who goes out in the evening and pours a quarter-cup of oil on a pond to see if the oil will calm the wind-chopped water? If he were to do something silly like that today he would probably miss an entire episode of “American Idol.”

Does missing reality television so one can experience the real world seem odd?

Today we know that oil doesn’t mix with water. It forms a film just two molecules thick that spreads across the water’s surface and acts sort of like a skin covering that stops the wind from rippling the surface. Of course, in today’s world Franklin would be sued by the environmental protection agency for creating an oil spill.

Another question: Does oil on the water pollute the water, or minimize erosion? I guess I could look into that if I didn’t have to catch the rerun of “The Biggest Loser.”

Then there was all that time Franklin wasted fooling around with the Leyden jar. The Leyden jar is a glass jar with an inner and outer metal covering. A metal rod inserted into the jar through a wooden stopper is connected to the inner coat by a metal chain. It was invented at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands by a “natural philosopher” (that’s what they called time-wasters in those days) named Pieter van Musschenbroek back in 1746.

Franklin actually built several Leyden jars, apparently for the sole purpose of shocking his dinner guests for after-dinner entertainment. They would have all been just as happy to have gotten a Tweet about the experience, but he couldn’t describe it in just 140 characters.

Franklin even went so far as to hypothesize that there were two, separate charges stored in the jars inner and outer metal layers. He called these positive and negative charges. These, he said, were separated by the glass until something, or someone, created a pathway for the two to flow together. He found providing dinner guests as a conduit shockingly entertaining.

It isn’t clear whether or not he actually wasted time flying a kite in a thunderstorm. But it was a Leyden jar that sparked an interest in doing so. That was the jar over which the infamous key supposedly hung. And it was his thinking and tinkering with electricity that led to the invention of the lightning rod.

Then there was the whole blowing-on-thermometer-bulb-that-had-cloth-wrapped-around-it-that-was-moistened-with-chloroform event. He and a friend did this just to see if he could drop the temperature as low as 7 degrees F on a hot summer day. I don’t know who was running the print shop, but I’ll bet he never watched an entire Rockies game.

When he wasn’t wasting time on reality, he was partying. One of the social organizations that he founded was the American Philosophical Society. He did this in 1743 even before the Leyden jar had been invented. The society was meant to be a place for prodigious time-wasters to discuss ways of wasting time.

He completely missed the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and Country Jam because he was tracking storms, investigating water spouts and whirlwinds, charting and naming the Gulf Stream, identifying electrical conductors, and inventing urinary catheters, bifocals, more-efficient stoves and catamaran hulls. He was such a prodigious waster of time that he actually won an award. In 1753 he was awarded the Copley Medal by the Royal Society of London. The Nobel Prize had not yet been established, so this was the highest scientific award of his day.

In 1756 he was elected a member of the Royal Society of London, a group of similar social misfits who never even tried to play “Battlefield Bad Company 2.”

Benjamin Franklin was one of the most accomplished scientists of his day, a fact that has been mostly forgotten. The esteem in which he was held influence later in life, was in great part due to his scientific reputation.

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Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College.


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