Power broker: David Bodanis plugs into the wonders of electricity
A powerful conception of electricity surges through David Bodanis' fascinating new book, Electric Universe: The Shocking True Story of Electricityit is a hidden force as ancient as the cosmos, unleashed only yesterday (in geological terms) by human ingenuity, with profound and ongoing consequences. The book's recurrent image of countless random electrons, at last given purposeful direction by scientific invention, makes an apt analogy for the volume of ungovernable facts and ideas brought into fascinating shape by the author's synthesis of science, biography, military history and cosmology. Bodanis is certainly not one to shy away from such challenges: his previous, bestselling book of popular science is called (with heroic simplicity) E=mc2.
Bodanis was born in Chicago, taught for many years at Oxford University and now lives in London. He responded to BookPage's questions about Electric Universe on a blustery, rainy day in the British capital.
BookPage: Your history of electricity radiates wonder and affection for the men and women who made it happen. Is there one person in your pantheon of electrifying heroes who stands out above the restsomeone whom you could call your favorite? If so, what makes him or her so special?
David Bodanis: I'm touched by [Michael] Faraday for his earnestness in sticking with his religious belief, but not in a dogmatic way, rather using it as a guiding lens or spectacles through which to find empirically provable truths about the universe. Also his visionthat image of zillions of invisible waves all around uswas great.
I also liked [Alexander Graham] Bell, for his goofy puppy love.
BP: I just realized that "affection" would be the wrong word to apply to the extremely unlikable Samuel Morse (of Morse code fame). Was it fun to write about this scoundrel?
DB: Yep, for so many like him are constantly being produced! A few are seen on their way to federal penitentiaries; most, alas, in Bush's America are praised in the Wall Street Journal.
BP: The cumulative effect of your narrative is an overwhelming sense that nothing in the universe exists apart from electric forces. How did this insight come to you? Is your consciousness of the electric universe something that you arrived at gradually, or was it an epiphany?
DB: It took a while to come clear. To some extent the book follows from my earlier E=mc2. There I noted that E=mc2 explains how the stars are powered, and how they gush out the stuff we live on. But that book didn't say what happened to all the stuff in the universe, in the long interval between being created, and then being swallowed up by black holes or otherwise disappearing far in the future. Electricity is probably the most powerful force in explaining the details of what happens to it along the way.
Note also that gravity of course is also super-important for overall matters and could be the topic of a book on its own. But electricity is better at details.
BP: Even the outstretching of God's finger to Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling becomes, in your telling, a process of "opening sodium channels" and "starting electrical surges." Is such a description an act of demystification? A new kind of mystery? Something different altogether? (Whatever it is, it's great.)
DB: I suppose I was kind of teasing. I think it was John Ford, the great director, who said you can make fun of people, but you shouldn't be mean. It's that sort of level. Think of I.B. Singer's "Gimpel the Fool." We tease, but by doing so, we're also sharing, also saying that we really do care about these fallible beings. For, a) if we didn't care, we wouldn't bother to tease, and b) those fallible beings are also us!
BP: From Hertz to Watt to Turing, you show how successive breakthroughs in the harnessing of electricity empowered the 20th-century war machine. Is there a moral to this story?
DB: Yep. Watch out for extra powers being unleashed . . . in a world where political or emotional controls are still very primitive. It's similar to how money can make people's ordinary intentions get magnified. Technology does the same. That's fine if they're good intentionsless fine if they're bad.
BP: The devastating bombing of Hamburg in 1943, made possible by advances in British radar technology, stands unforgettably at the center of Electric Universe. Was this event hard to write about? What do you hope your readers will learn most from this account?
DB: Yes, it was hard, and I did the main draft very quickly, in one go (listening to Eve Cassidy). The conclusion should be: watch out where your drive leads you. Thus readers were led along by the fun earlier chapter on Watson-Watt to be rooting for what he was producing. The result is that we're really startledand feel a bit guiltywhen we see how it could be used.
BP: One of many astounding passages in the book concerns Nancy Ostrowski's research on endorphins through her decapitation of mice while they were having sex. Where did her idea for such an outrageous experiment come from? You make one sly suggestion yourself when you tell us that she once considered becoming a nun!
DB: All I know is that one anecdote about her; it's in a book by a woman (Candace Pert) who was important in the discovery of endorphins. That book simply stated her experiments, and alsoseparatelyher background. I was teasing a bit in suggesting the link: an effort to have a change of pace.
BP: You explain the complex world of electrical physiology with extraordinary clarity, beauty and charm. What sort of challenge is it to write about difficult scientific subjects? Do you have an authorial secret for making your writing both brilliantly accessible and faithful to the subject's complexity?
DB: Such kind words! I grew up the last in a big familyfive big sistersand like small mammals generally, learned to be extremely clear for survival! Also, I like people; I've really enjoyed in the past when people have made stories or insights clear for me, and so it's a great pleasure to work to make things equally clear for others.
Michael Alec Rose is a musician, composer and associate professor at Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music in Nashville.