William Gilbert: Science is The Best Superpower

An illustration of a superhero holding a pumpkin.
We love comic books just as much as you do, but sometimes it seems unfair: why does everyone know Thor and Magneto, but so few have heard about the real person who first researched electricity and magnetism? This month, we’re fighting this injustice by reading comics about the English physicist William Gilbert.

Becoming a Hero

A superhero, as we all know, must be either extremely disadvantaged or very wealthy and influential. William Gilbert belonged to the second category: he was born into the family of a well-respected borough recorder and didn’t face much adversity growing up. He studied in Cambridge, then went to Oxford, obtained a doctorate degree, and set off to travel.

Gilbert achieved his scientific feats in physics, but he was a physician by training, and, in fact, quite a good one. Beginning in 1601, he served as personal physician to the Queen of England, Elizabeth I, and later to her successor, King James I. Just so you understand, even Paracelsus, one of the greatest doctors of his time, never got to treat monarchs or have a seat at court.

Every superhero needs a villain. Gilbert fought against something much more dangerous than a local mafia boss or a mad clown — his rival was scholasticism

This was a philosophical system that gained popularity in Medieval Europe and dominated teaching in all universities even centuries later. Scholastics did not separate religion from science (anything that contradicted religious dogmas was considered proof of the theory’s incorrectness) and made little effort to make new discoveries. Those scientists who dared to test something by experiment with no regard for spiritual texts were declared heretics, got expelled from universities, and became subject of ridicule. For example, you may recall the Copernicans, who dared to claim that the Earth rotates around the Sun and not the other way around! People who spread such thinking were persecuted and even put to death.

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An astronaut floating in space above the earth, surrounded by particles and positrons.

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