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:

Neil deGrasse Tyson Deliv­ers the Great­est Sci­ence Ser­mon Ever

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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