Humphry Davy, Drama Queen

Many years ago I was chatting to a friend and mentioned that my research work had been criticised for the poor quality of English grammar. He snorted with laughter: ‘But you’re a scientist, you don’t need to be able to write good English!’
Unable to think of a suitably crushing reply, I sulked for about a minute; but ever since then I have wondered about how Joe Public perceives the scientific community. Are we really a bunch of semi-literate philistines? Certainly, science is presented as being dull and cautious.

I recall once watching a TV programme presented by Jim Al-Khalili, a brilliant communicator who works as Professor of Theoretical Physics at Surrey. He was discussing the battles between Volta and Galvani for acceptance of their ideas, and went on to talk about Humphry Davy, who demonstrated the first use of electric light.

This event is recounted on a couple of popular general knowledge websites in a heartbreakingly drab manner:

“1809 –Humphry Davy, an English chemist, invented the first electric light. Davy connected two wires to a battery and attached a charcoal strip betwween the other ends of the wires. The charged carbon glowed making the first arc lamp.” (

“The programme finishes with the first breakthrough in finding a commercial use for electricity, Humphry Davy demonstrating the first carbon-arc light before members of the Royal Institution.” (Wikipedia)

But when Professor Jim gets his hands on the story, it really comes to life. Davy was a celebrity; he had discovered new elements and would go on to invent a safety lamp, happily foregoing revenue from its mass production. Al-Khalili describes how Davy arranged for the basement of the Royal Institution to be filled with Galvanic Pile cells, creating a ginormous battery, to which carbon rods were connected. When Davy brought the rods together an electric arc was produced, filling the room with light, and those who witnessed the event could talk of nothing else for days afterwards.

Humphry Davy lived in the transitional period when Enlightenment values began to give way to Romantic ideals; he was a writer of poetry, and a keen scientist; he understood the importance of drama, and knew that his demonstration was vital in helping to convince people that this new ‘electricity’ was a great discovery. And he relished his role as a British Prometheus, champion of enlightenment for the new era.

For science is not an abstract, detached intellectual pursuit; it involves real individuals with a sense of mission, lofty ideals tempered with vanity and pride. It is a mistake to imagine ‘scientists’ as being somehow remote from normal human endeavours; we are as real and irrational and wholesome and petty as every one of our neighbours.


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