Friday, February 10, 2006

Tucker suggesting Ben Franklin's kite experiment was a hoax

With the Franklin tricentennial in 2006, one contemplates some books on Franklin. Tucker's "Kite Hoax" is relevant to issues of Franklin giving the lightning rod to the public (contemplate the open source movement). Tucker suggests that Franklin may not have invented the rod, or the kite experiment. Do we have an early Hwang-gate, or merely a debated point?

Of reviews -->

Shawn Carlson reviewing Bolt of Fate: Benjamin Franklin and His Electric Kite Hoax for American Scientist Online: ...the best-researched polemic of its kind. Tucker even attempted to replicate Franklin's experiment. With that background, he could have delivered an erudite treatment of what every historian agrees was a bizarre affair in American history. Unfortunately, he chose to go for Franklin's jugular, and as a result Bolt of Fate reads more like sophistry than serious history.

Like a prosecuting attorney arguing every possible angle to get a conviction, Tucker splits historical hairs, spins the written record and dismisses eminent antiquarians by selectively citing writers of deservedly lesser stature. Tucker makes his case in part by subtly shifting the meanings of words that appear in historical documents. For example, historians have long questioned why Franklin permitted only his son to witness the kite experiment. Joseph Priestley's account, which he got directly from Franklin, explains it this way: "But dreading the ridicule which too commonly attends unsuccessful attempts in science, he communicated his intended experiment to no body but his son." Tucker quotes this accurately but then spins the meaning. "Priestley explains," says Tucker, "that Franklin did the experiment in secrecy because he was afraid of being embarrassed if the experiment failed," and then Tucker argues that Franklin wasn't prone to embarrassment. But ridicule and embarrassment are not at all the same thing. Embarrassment is a completely personal feeling. Ridicule, however, is an expression of public disdain and is something that every politician is quite right to dread. Tucker has altered the record here to slip a pry bar beneath Franklin's perfectly reasonable explanation. Clearly, Tucker knew what conclusion he wanted to reach.

Then, there's the heavy-handed hype: In a P. T. Barnum-esque bit of hucksterism, the book's jacket claims that Tucker has proved "that Franklin never flew the kite at all." Tucker never equivocates on Franklin's guilt in the text (saying, for example, that "The kite experiment was [Franklin's] scientific hoax"), but he eventually admits that "There's no proving Franklin never flew his kite. It will always remain possible." Unfortunately, this admission is hidden in an endnote, right next to another surprise: a description of Tucker's attempts to replicate Franklin's experiment. As Tucker's most direct evidence, this material should be front-and-center, but instead it sits tucked away in the back of the book. Tucker reports that he tried to get a Franklin-style kite aloft, but it failed to fly even in a 20-mph wind. The exculpatory fact that three NASA aerodynamics experts studied Franklin's kite design and saw it as "feasible" is also buried here in the notes.

Oddly, Tucker failed to test what he calls the "most convincing evidence against the kite story." Had Franklin not electrically isolated himself from the kite string, his experiment would have failed, because any charge collected by the kite would have traveled through Franklin's body to ground. That's why Franklin held a silk ribbon that he had tied to that famous key. Wet silk is, of course, a conductor. So to keep the silk dry, Franklin took cover inside a shed and flew the kite out a door or window. But Tucker insists that that wouldn't have worked. "The kite line," he states, "is above the insulating silk ribbon. When the rainwater moistens the twine and moves down it, the water will continue freely over the surface of the silk." This problem, Tucker insists, must have foiled Franklin's result.

Tucker might be right. But any kite flyer knows that the string sags considerably and presents a surprisingly shallow angle at the hand. Tucker doesn't say just how vertical a hemp string has to be for water to flow along it. Also, couldn't other circumstances, such as the key deflecting any water stream, have protected the silk? Tucker doesn't mention the possibility. Indeed, self-skepticism, the process of putting your own ideas to the critical test, is Bolt of Fate's most glaring omission and the primary reason that it fails. So long as his antagonists lack such skepticism, Benjamin Franklin's scientific reputation will be ever secure.

from an amazon review by Bruce Loveitt:

If people wanted to assume that he had flown a kite in a thunderstorm....well, he wasn't going to disabuse them of the notion. Likewise, although Franklin came up with the idea and "blueprint" for the lightning rod, he apparently tooted his own horn by lying to his European "colleagues" when he claimed that lightning rods were being attached to public buildings in Philadelphia earlier than the historical evidence shows they were. Franklin was presumably miffed that the Royal Society in London had been virtually ignoring the papers he had written on electricity up to this point, and was trying to gain some respect. (There is also evidence that Royal Society member William Watson was trying to claim some of Franklin's theories and experiments had originated, independently, with himself.) So, those are the pros. What are the cons? Perverse as it may seem, zeroing in on Franklin the scientist is one of them. Frankly, (sorry, I couldn't resist) there isn't a whole lot to zero in on. Taking 237 pages to prove that Franklin didn't fly a kite in a thunderstorm, and that he lied about when the first domestic lightning rod was constructed, can tax your patience. Also, anyone who has read anything previous on Franklin won't be surprised by the author's comments that Franklin was fond of hoaxes, practical jokes, and that he was a lot more sophisticated than his public persona. However, the most grievous "negative" is that the author tries to assert that Franklin was responsible for our victory in the Revolutionary War. The logic is as follows: Franklin's self-promotion as an "electrical scientist" resulted in his being immensely popular in France.


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