Lights, cameras, everything

11th February 2005 at 00:00
Electricity forms the very fabric of our existence, John Kelleher discovers in a powerful new book

Electric Universe: how electricity switched on the modern world

By David Bodanis

Little, Brown pound;14.99

This review is being written on a computer in a warm and well-lit room. A coffee machine keeps me fuelled, a CD plays some music and, shortly, I will email the review to a TES editor. My telephone and mobile are to hand should there be any queries.

Imagine a world without any of this - with no understanding of electricity.

There would be almost none of the multitude of machines we take for granted, no mass entertainment or long-range communications, no aircraft, nor weapons of mass destruction, and medical science would be virtually medieval.

Most noticeably, perhaps, our nights would be dark. Until modern times we lived largely in a world lit only by fire. Before gas lamps began to glimmer in major Western cities in the early 19th century, all humanity lived under curfew. Even candles were considered costly, and only the rich could afford to light their homes with any regularity. The night-time domain beyond the shuttered windows and doors was dangerous and, in Shakespeare's phrase, full of "the deeds of darkness".

The discovery and development of electricity changed all that. The painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler captured the wonder of this transformed world when he wrote: "The warehouses are palaces in the night and the whole city hangs in the heavens and fairyland is before us." American sociologist Murray Melbin likened the transformation wrought by public lighting to the colonisation of a new world, with humanity now beginning to live fully around the clock. Lenin characterised communism as "Soviet government plus the electrification of the whole country".

The profound revolution sparked by the unlocking of electrical power is detailed in this new work by David Bodanis, whose last book, the bestselling E=mc2, offered one of the most accessible routes into understanding Einstein's ideas.

In Electric Universe he recounts how we came to understand and harness electricity. He begins with two shockingly dark visions. The first is to consider what would happen to our wired world in the event of a global power failure. It would be a rapid descent into chaos.

And what would a universe without electricity be like? The answer is simple: it would not exist. Electricity is fundamental to the fabric of reality. He writes: "The force of electricity is very powerful and has been operating non-stop for more than 15 billion years. But it's also utterly hidden, crammed deep within all rocks and stars and atoms. The force is like two Olympian arm-wrestlers whose struggle is unnoticed because their straining hands barely move. There are almost always equal amounts of positive and negative charges within everything around us - so well balanced that, although their effects are everywhere, their existence remains unseen."

There are many genres in popular scientific writing. Some, such as Jared Diamond's recent book Collapse, have an urgent message to deliver. Others present new and hugely complicated ideas in accessible ways, such as Michio Kaku's forthcoming Parallel Worlds. Then there are those that take something utterly familiar, such as salt, cod, nutmeg or water, and reveal the fascinating history and science behind the seemingly mundane.

Electric Universe, together with The Secret House, Bodanis's earlier trilogy of books on domestic life, the house, garden and family, falls into this last group, and he does it better than most. His greatest gift is telling stories with a passion and vibrant energy that makes you thirst to investigate more once his books are done. Bodanis used to be a teacher.

If the start of Electric Universe is dark, the rest is full of light - even allowing for diversions into the story about the role electricity played in Bomber Harris's "bombing of ethics", to use Canon Collins's phrase.

The narrative whisks us through a panoply of personalities whose passions and perceptiveness first uncovered the true nature of electricity, saw its potential and went about harnessing it.

Many gave their names to the stuff - the Italian Alessandro Volta, for instance, whose party trick of putting metal in his mouth to produce a tingling on the tongue was a first portal into understanding the work of electric batteries. The German Heinrich Hertz, in his tragically brief life, carried out research that paved the way for the discovery of radiowaves. The achievement of this book is to illuminate an important but surprisingly difficult subject via engaging human stories. Bodanis locates the genesis of some of the greatest discoveries in very basic human emotions: love, grief and greed.

It was the love of a young teacher of the deaf for one of his students in 1870s Boston that led to the development of the telephone, for example.

Alexander Graham Bell had been intrigued with the mechanics of the human voice since childhood. As a teenager, he and his brother carried out various experiments on voice generation, even coaxing the family's long-suffering dog to produce word-like sounds by manipulating its larynx and rewarding it with biscuits.

But then he met Mabel, the love of his life. It was her parents' objections to the match that sent him into overdrive to win their approval. This moving story intertwining intellectual and emotional pursuit led to a scientific breakthrough.

Grief helped shape the creativity of another pioneer, Alan Turing, the English father of computers. At 17 he fell in love with an older boy at school, Christopher Morcom. A shared passion was science. But then Morcom died of TB. Bodanis writes that Morcom's death seemed to have bred a rage at religion in Turing. "That anger, that belief in cold materialism, was indispensable for the great electrical device that Turing imagined just a few years later. It is hard to conceive of creating an artificial device that duplicates human thinking, if you believe in an immortal soul." But Turing's grief and later his isolation in an era where his sexuality was still a crime finally led him to suicide. It came on the very brink of the development, in the United States, of the transistor, a device that would have enabled his dream to be realised.

Greed is another engine of discovery. Bodanis offers the wonderful but salutary tale of the first bungled attempts to connect Europe to America by telegraph cables beneath the Atlantic. To this day thousands of miles of cabling lie fathoms deep beneath the ocean, lost and useless.

Bodanis provides a plethora of other stories about the people who helped bring about the modern electric world. But this book goes further, for it also has chapters reminding us that it isn't just gadgets and technology that electricity drives. This strange invisible stuff is also at the heart of how the human machine works - and how the fabric of reality is built.

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