'Lost in Space': Robinson family owes its escape from unknown planet to centuries old physics experiments

They depended on a lightning strike to juice up the engines of their spacecraft, that would allow them to fly back to the Resolute. Their attempt could be traced back to American statesman Ben Franklin's experiment.


                            'Lost in Space': Robinson family owes its escape from unknown planet to centuries old physics experiments
A still from 'Lost in Space' season two. (Source: Netflix)

In episode two, ‘Precipice’, of the second season of Netflix's ‘Lost in Space’, we see the Robinsons hit a dead end with their vessel stuck on the ledge of a waterfall in the unknown planet they were stuck on. The family (and Dr. Smith played by Parker Posey) planned to use the Chariot as a superconductor to get Jupiter back on track. They depended on a lightning strike to juice up the engines, that would allow them to fly back to the Resolute. 

Their attempt was one that could be traced back to American statesman Benjamin Franklin -- one of the founding fathers of the country -- who in 1752 attempted to prove that lightning was electricity. His experiment was a simple one: Franklin constructed a simple kite and attached a wire to the top of it to act as a lightning rod. To the bottom of the kite, he attached a hemp string, and to that, he attached a silk string. He attached a metal key at the end of the string. Franklin’s kite was not struck by lightning. If it had been, he probably would have been electrocuted.  But the conductor drew negative charges from a charged cloud to the kite, string, metal key, thereby proving his hypothesis.

But not everyone was as lucky as Franklin. As Will (Maxwell Jenkins) pointed out in the episode, the unfortunate soul was a German physicist called Georg Wilhelm Richmann.

At St. Petersburg on August 6, 1753, a little more than a year after Franklin’s experiment in Philadelphia, according to the National Archives, “Richmann perceiving a tempest arising northwards, he prepared for making electrical observations, or the means for averting the effects of thunder, according to the method practiced by Mr. Franklin.”

While the experiment was underway, a supposed ball of lightning appeared and collided with Richmann's head leaving him dead with a red spot on his forehead, his shoes blown open, and parts of his clothes singed. “This was succeeded by an explosion like that of a small cannon, which also threw Sokolaw (his colleague) on the floor,” notes the National Archives, adding, “On the left side of his body, from the hips to the neck, were eight spots, red and blue, besides others, like those caused by gunpowder.”

Such a fate could have easily been that of the Robinson family. Had it not been for one thing: their ship acted as a Faraday cage, or at least according to Maureen Robinson (Molly Parker), that was the case.

Named after Michael Faraday in 1836, a Faraday cage is an enclosure used to block electromagnetic fields (both static and non-static). It is usually created by a continuous covering of conductive material. Had their ship -- and the vehicle in which Maureen and Penny (Mina Sundwall) were trapped down at the bottom of the artificial waterfall -- not been covered in such conductive material, surely, the Robinsons and Dr. Smith would have not survived the incident and the show would have lost all its major characters in just the second episode. 

Thankfully, the writers are smarter than that. ‘Lost in Space’ season two is available for viewing on Netflix.

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