Adam Savage’s Animated Lesson on the Simple Ideas That Lead to Great Scientific Discoveries

Educator, industrial design fabricator and Myth Busters cohost Adam Savage is driven by curiosity.

Science gets his wheels turning faster than the notched disc Hippolyte Fizeau used to measure the speed of light in 1849.

In his TED-Ed talk on how simple ideas lead to scientific discoveries, above, Savage zips across the centuries to share the work of three game changers – Fizeau, Eratosthenes, and Richard Feynman (one of the de facto patron saints of science-related TED talks).

I found it difficult to wrap my head around the sheer quantities of information Savage shoehorns into the seven minute video, giving similarly voluble and omnivorous mathmusician Vi Hart a run for her money. Clearly, he understands exactly what he’s talking about, whereas I had to take the review quiz in an attempt to retain just a bit of this new-to-me material.

I’m glad he glossed over Feynman’s childhood fascination with inertia in order to spend more time on the lesser known of his three subjects. Little Feynman’s observation of his toy wagon is charming, but the Nobel Prize winner’s life became an open book to me with Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick’s excellent graphic biography. What’s left to discover?

How about Eratosthenes? I’d never before heard of the Alexandrian librarian who calculated the Earth’s circumference with astonishing accuracy around 200 BC. (It helped that he was good at math and geography, the latter of which he invented.) Inspiration fuels the arts, much as it does science, and I’d like to learn more about him.

Ditto Fizeau, whom Savage describes as a less sexy scientific swashbuckler than methodical fact checker, which is what he was doing when he wound up cracking the speed of light in 1849. Two centuries earlier Galileo used lanterns to determine that light travels at least ten times faster than sound. Fizeau put Galileo’s number to the test, experimenting with his notched wheel, a candle, and mirrors and ultimately setting the speed of light at a much more accurate 313,300 Km/s. Today’s measurement of 299792.458 km/s was arrived at using technology unthinkable even a few decades ago.

Personally, I would never think to measure the speed of light with something that sounds like a zoetrope, but I might write a play about someone who did.

Related Content:

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The Feynman Lectures on Physics, The Most Popular Physics Book Ever Written, Now Completely Online

Sam Harris: Science Can Answer Moral Questions

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Her play, Fawnbook, opens in New York City later this fall. Follow her @AyunHalliday


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