A Key & A Kite: StarTalk Live! With Neil deGrasse Tyson & Benjamin Franklin


How does lightning work? On this episode, Neil deGrasse Tyson and comic co-host Chuck break down the legendary science and inventions of Benjamin Franklin, live with chief editor of The Benjamin Franklin Papers, Ellen Cohn and Benjamin Franklin himself!

Who was Benjamin Franklin? Neil discovers a way to transport him to the present so we can get our answers directly from the source. We explore how he got his start in science, almanacs, and diplomacy. When did Franklin go from being a publisher of science to a doer of science? Learn about the transit of Venus. How did scientists in the 1760s calculate the distance between the Earth and the sun?

We explore Franklin’s most iconic experiment: the kite with a key. Discover “electrical fluid,” as they called it, the invention of the battery, and the key to electricity. How does lightning work? We explain how lightning rods work, how it saved many New England buildings, and how it got Franklin in trouble with the church. Is capturing lighting thwarting the will of god?

We learn about Franklin’s role in the American revolution. Why was he sent to France to conduct diplomacy? Explore the power of science and how Franklin helped Captain Cook finish his journey back from the South Pacific. Why did Europe turn dark in 1783? Where does the word “mesmerize” come from? We dive into Franklin’s efforts to debunk Anton Mesmer’s “animal magnetism” and the discovery of the placebo effect. All that, plus, words from Neil about the value of discovery and continuing to learn throughout your life.

Thanks to our Patrons Andrew Herron, Bhargava Kandada, and Mark Roop for supporting us this week.

NOTE: StarTalk+ Patrons can watch or listen to this entire episode commercial-free.

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About StarTalk:
Science meets pop culture on StarTalk! Astrophysicist & Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson, his comic co-hosts, guest celebrities & scientists discuss astronomy, physics, and everything else about life in the universe. Keep Looking Up!

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0:00 – Introduction
4:05 – The Papers of Benjamin Franklin Project
8:27 – Franklin’s Upbringing
9:25 – Benjamin Franklin’s Return
13:27 – Franklin’s Philadelphia
14:24 – Poor Richard’s Almanack
17:40 – The Junto Society
19:35 – Benjamin Franklin’s Schedule
21:26 – Transit of Venus
26:15 – Benjamin Franklin’s Most Famous Experiment
30:51 – How Lightning Works
34:45 – Lightning Rod
43:19 – Oil & Water Experiment
47:39 – Franklin & Pseudoscience
53:38 – Ben Franklin in France
57:45 – Franklin’s International Recognition
1:02:11 – A Mysterious Darkness Over Europe
1:05:48 – Franz Anton Mesmer
1:14:12 – Closing Remarks


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