January 17 – America’s Most Famous Citizen Scientist

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OK, two days late, but still worth taking note of. -sg

Factismal: Benjamin Franklin is 306 years old today.
Source: factismals.com

Franklin's map of the Gulf Stream.

Franklin's map of the Gulf Stream.

If you took American History, odds are that they told you that Benjamin Franklin was the author of Poor Richard’s Almanac, helped write the Declaration of Independence, and that he invented the Franklin Stove and bifocals. What they probably didn’t tell you is that he was also one of the most famous scientists in the world – and that the USA wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t been.

Franklin was curious about everything and spoke with everyone to learn what they knew. His work in the Maryland Assembly lead him to track the increase in population in America and England; he published his findings in a paper that would inspire Thomas Malthus and other scientists. His duties as postmaster led him to chart the Gulf Stream, which allowed sailors to shave two weeks off of their sailing time to America. Franklin also made measurements of how evaporation of water can cool an area and built a “swamp cooler” to refrigerate his home; anyone who has walked through a mister at a theme park has benefited from his discovery. He researched weather and published important papers on storm paths and on tornadoes. He was also the first scientist to link volcanic eruptions to cooler weather; when a volcano erupted in Iceland, Franklin suggested that it may have put enough ash into the atmosphere to cool the world.

Benjamin Franklin’s chart of the Gulf Stream

Important as those contributions were, his fame as a scientist was based mostly on his discovery that lightning was just electricity. In Franklin’s time, not much was known about electricity. Indeed, it was Franklin himself who discovered that there were positive and negative charges; he also discovered that charges gathered near a sharp point (this is why static electricity is more likely to jump from your finger than your elbow). And even less was known about lightning. Some thought it was a brief flash of fire, and others thought that it was just light while still others thought that it was electricity.

Read more about Benjamin Franklin, the prototype citizen scientist.

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