On the latest episode of "Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey," program host Neil de Grasse Tyson focused on 19th century British scientist Michael Faraday, whom we can thank for much of the technology we take for granted today.
Born in a poor London suburb and receiving little formal schooling in his childhood, Faraday became book binder's apprentice, binding books during the day and then educating himself be reading them at night, Tyson explained in the episode "The Electric Boy."
His entry into science began when he attended a lecture by famous British chemist Humphrey Davy on the little-understood phenomenon of a "mysterious force" Davy chose to call an "electric fluid."
Engrossed in the lecture, Faraday took copious notes and then bound them up as a book intended as a present to Davy. Impressed, Davy took on the young Faraday as his secretary, a position the ambitious Faraday turned to his advantage, eventually becoming Davy's lab assistant.
Davy had been trying to determine why an electrical current running through a wire made it act as a magnet, attracting a compass needle to it.
Stumped, he told Faraday he could have a crack at the puzzle, expecting the young assistant would have little more success.
However, Faraday figured out the forces at work, and turned them into the world's first electric motor, converting electricity and magnetism into continuous motion, leading directly to today's appliances, devices, tools and all the electrical and electronic gizmos and gadgets we take for granted.
Upon Davy's death, Faraday succeeded him as the head of London's Royal Institution, and in subsequent research tuned the electric motor discovery on its head; if electricity in a coil of wire could move a magnet to make a motor, then a magnet moved within a coil of wire could make electricity. Faraday had invented the generator.
Despite dealing with memory loss and depression as he aged, Faraday wasn't through in his discoveries.
Having made basic discoveries about magnetism and electricity, he brought light into the triad, linking the three forces into modern electromagnetic theory, and showing the magnetic field surrounding everything, including the Earth, emitted electromagnetic radiation.
Lacking the mathematics to formalize his discoveries -- a holdover from his dearth of early childhood education -- Faraday found scientists unwilling to accept the theory with rigorous math to back it up.
It fell to another brilliant scientist, James Clerk Maxwell, to set out Faraday's ideas as an array of equations showing that electromagnet radiation exists and that it moves at the speed of light -- a cornerstone understanding underpinning much of modern physics.
Not a bad legacy for Faraday, the "electric boy" who rose from a London slum to the peak of the science world.