Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Scientific Exploits of Ben Franklin Part 1: The Oil Drop Experiments

Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time in Philadelphia will understand exactly what I mean when I say that the city is obsessed with Benjamin Franklin. Obsessed.  Now, don’t get me wrong--he was an amazing individual.  He was a founding father of the US, and one of the greatest statesmen and inventors of his day.  However, the number of statues and other structures (including a bridge) named after or dedicated to him sometimes seems a touch excessive.   

Many people don't realize that Ben Franklin was also one of the most important scientists of his day.  This is even more impressive due to the fact that he was entirely self-taught.  He is often referred to as "Doctor Franklin," but this is only because Oxford University gave him an honorary doctorate 1762.  Ben's scientific excellence was driving mainly by his keen mind and unrelenting curiosity. 

There are several museum exhibits in Philly about Ben’s scientific innovations and inventions.  While most people associate Ben's scientific exploits with the discovery of electricity, Ben also made some very important observations about the interactions of lipids (oils, fats, etc.) with water.  These are often overshadowed by his more risky experiment of flying a kite in a thunderstorm, but his oil-water experiments (called the "oil drop" experiments) were nonetheless an extremely important contribution to the sciences of surface chemistry and biology.  Read on to learn more...