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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds And so to begin, Mark, what do you think are Humphry Davy’s main achievements? Well, there are so many. I mean, it’s kind of humbling. I mean, first of all, he discovered lots of elements, like potassium, and sodium, and barium, and calcium, and quite a few others. He came around at just the right moment to be able to just discover so much about our chemistry, that makes up the world. But he did more than that. He wasn’t just a scholarly academic, who did these discoveries and then handed them over to other people, and said, wow. He actually went into the world and said, there’s a problem, I’m going to try and solve it, with things like Davy’s mining lamp.

Skip to 0 minutes and 46 seconds So he was an applied scientist as well, then. As well. But also, he was a laugh. I mean, you know, literally a laugh. He discovered the effects of laughing gas. He got together with poets. He had fantastic parties here in this building. And he sort of invented the persona of the scientist-entertainer. And what is Davy’s importance to chemists today? Obviously, I think, in terms of the elements themselves, they are the building blocks of everything. So that heritage is there. He bequeathed us this kind of notion of galvanic protection, which is how you can protect things through chemical reactions. He understood about batteries. He was the first person to really understand that batteries are bottled chemical reactions.

Skip to 1 minute and 33 seconds And in some ways, he gave birth to Faraday, who then did the same for electromechanical devices, and was arguably more famous than him. But took him as the kind of– I guess– the kind of the authentic version, yeah. And I think, really, he should be obviously congratulated for that. You’ve told us that Davy was responsible for discovering a number of elements. Can you talk a bit more about the experiments that he did in order to make those discoveries? So obviously a lot of people were trying to work out what the basic building blocks of the world were. And there was lots of arguments about how many different types of chemical species there were.

Skip to 2 minutes and 8 seconds And these experiments are very difficult to do. To isolate a pure element. And the easy ones had already been obtained by the time Davy comes along. But he has something up his sleeve, which means that he suddenly has this massive opportunity, and that is electricity. So he uses electricity in solutions. And what electricity does, it drives certain chemical reactions into directions that you couldn’t otherwise get them into. And that allows you to isolate new compounds. And that’s what he did. And once he discovered that, he realised that there was an enormous potential. And so he rattled them off. And that was impressive. So that’s called electrolysis. And it’s a very handy method for getting elements out of solutions.

Skip to 2 minutes and 53 seconds Especially the more reactive elements. So, yeah. I mean, I think, right person, right time, comes along and this opens up this whole area. And he was able to exploit that. Yeah. And so you’ve told us all about Davy’s successes, of which there were many. But a scientist’s life is rarely completely filled with successes, and there’s often periods of failure between those successes. Can you talk a little bit more about Davy’s experiences of failure and how he dealt with them? That’s interesting, isn’t it? Because, in fact, failure is probably more influential in your career and what you end up discovering than your successes. Because they teach you to kind of be so humble in the face of complexity, don’t they?

Skip to 3 minutes and 37 seconds And he was an experimental scientist, and he experimented with lots of gases. And had this bravado and entertainer side of him, which meant he did very dangerous experiments, that could have killed him and almost did a couple of times. He remarks that he kind of– [LAUGH] I’m not going to die yet, but– And so inhaling different gases, and proving to other people that they weren’t poisonous, like nitrous oxide.

Skip to 4 minutes and 2 seconds So, I mean, it was part of his experimental method, was to experiment on himself. And that happens a lot in his time, which we now are not OK with. Because it’s so dangerous. So many people did die or disfigure themselves. And he was not alone in that. Had some terrible accidents. But, yeah. It’s part of his persona, and presumably why he was so prolific. Because he really did engage. And how should scientists remember Davy today? I mean, personally, I think he should be known for being a very balanced scientist, who could straddle the arts and the sciences. I think that’s where more scientists need to be. A lot of scientists produce world-changing inventions, so he’s not alone in that.

Skip to 4 minutes and 50 seconds And actually, the Davy lamp was copied, or, there were many versions of it. So it probably wasn’t his biggest impact on the world, even though he’s most famous for it. But that is the fate of us all, right? You’re known for the thing you have no control over. That’s true. Well, thank you very much.

Davy’s Achievements in Science and his Legacy

In this video, Professor Mark Miodownik is interviewed by Dr Rachel Platel on Davy’s scientific achievements and legacy to scientists today.

She asks him to think about what Davy’s scientific achievements and legacy are to scientists today.

  • Do you agree with his answer?

  • What does Davy mean to you? If you knew of him before, has your view changed over the course of this course?

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This video is from the free online course:

Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp

Lancaster University