Electric Universe: The Shocking True Story of Electricity
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In his bestselling E=mc2, David Bodanis led us, with astonishing ease, through the world’s most famous equation. Now, in Electric Universe, he illuminates the wondrous yet invisible force that permeates our universe—and introduces us to the virtuoso scientists who plumbed its secrets.
For centuries, electricity was seen as little more than a curious property of certain substances that sparked when rubbed. Then, in the 1790s, Alessandro Volta began the scientific investigation that ignited an explosion of knowledge and invention. The force that once seemed inconsequential was revealed to be responsible for everything from the structure of the atom to the functioning of our brains. In harnessing its power, we have created a world of wonders—complete with roller coasters and radar, computer networks and psychopharmaceuticals.
A superb storyteller, Bodanis weaves tales of romance, divine inspiration, and fraud through lucid accounts of scientific breakthroughs. The great discoverers come to life in all their brilliance and idiosyncrasy, including the visionary Michael Faraday, who struggled against the prejudices of the British class system, and Samuel Morse, a painter who, before inventing the telegraph, ran for mayor of New York City on a platform of persecuting Catholics. Here too is Alan Turing, whose dream of a marvelous thinking machine—what we know as the computer—was met with indifference, and who ended his life in despair after British authorities forced him to undergo experimental treatments to “cure” his homosexuality.
From the frigid waters of the Atlantic to the streets of Hamburg during a World War II firestorm to the interior of the human body, Electric Universe is a mesmerizing journey of discovery by a master science writer.
By the beginning of the winter, [his friends] would not, could not, face the possible outcome. . . . Extract from the diary of Heinrich Hertz, 1892: 29 August. Parents arrive on the way back to Hamburg. 6 October. Major operation. 7 October. Difficulties in swallowing very severe. 9 October. Severe pain. 11 October. Tried to get up, but fever very high. Heinrich Hertz to his parents: Now unfortunately my strength has been numbed for some time to come. . . . But I still hope for a future
radar over the years, but the first ones had found it impossible to get their superiors to believe them. In September 1922, for example, Albert Taylor and Leo Young of the U.S. Navy were trying to send a simple radio signal across the Potomac River, but kept getting some sort of interference. They looked up; a steamship was in the way. Yet when they tried to get funding to investigate this effect, they were scoffed at: how could a bulky steamship have any effect on ghostly, weightless radio
nonmetals remained inert, stuck dully in their mountains and clays, but a few of them began to do something peculiar. The stretching electric field from their electrons made them writhe and twist and pull into strange configurations. The sun over the new planet was hot. Energy was absorbed. The contorted clusters of atoms twisted some more, causing others around them to contort as well. Most of the shapes fell apart, but a few of the configurations created others so similar that they had
outside. At first their experiments failed because the hollow needle scraped against the membrane. But Huxley was good with his hands, and eventually, with the help of some miniature mirrors to see upcoming bends, they could steer the needle without scratching the fragile, still-living nerve. In the first few weeks, using a time-honored sophisticated technique of neurophysiologists, they squished the axons to squeeze out the axoplasmic goop inside. They didn’t find many of the atom-huge sodium
in the starry heavens above; those same quantum fluctuations control neuronal processing of each human brain contemplating the moral law within. For a one-sided yet entertaining discussion of free will and quantum mechanics, see Roger Penrose, The Emperor’s New Clothes: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989). EARLY ELECTRICITY The classic account of electricity’s early years is John Heilbron’s Electricity in the Seventeenth and