cover image Spark: The Life of Electricity and the Electricity of Life

Spark: The Life of Electricity and the Electricity of Life

Timothy J. Jorgensen. Princeton Univ, $29.95 (432p) ISBN 978-0-691-19783-8

Jorgensen (Strange Glow), the director of Georgetown University’s health physics graduate program, delivers a fascinating history of humanity’s gradual understanding of electricity. “Electricity is the foundation of life,” he writes, before exploring a dizzying array of topics: lightning experiments, fish behavior, neurotoxins, prosthetics, and human senses among them. All are painstakingly researched and explained with plenty of anecdotes and profiles of scientists throughout history. Among them are Alexander von Humboldt, an 18th-century naturalist who studied electric eels, and Luigi Galvani, an Italian scientist of the same era who believed that animals’ twitching legs were a result of internal electricity. Along the way, concepts such as voltage, resistance, neurons, and ion channels are explored alongside their discoverers, and the dual perspective makes for an accessible crash course. Jorgensen’s study is full of entertaining details, and his passion is evident: “Electricity is a powerful force of nature that everyone deals with to one extent or another. If we all become a little more knowledgeable about it, our society can use electricity’s many powers more wisely.” The result is a sparkling reminder of the strange wonders of life. (Nov.)