Animal Electricity: How we learned that the body and brain are electric machines by Robert B. Campenot (Harvard University Press) for New Scientist, 9 March 2016.
IF YOU stood at arm’s length from someone and each of you had 1 per cent more electrons than protons, the force pushing the two of you apart would be enough to lift a “weight” equal to that of the entire Earth.
This startling observation, from Richard Feynman’s Lectures on Physics, so impressed cell biologist Robert Campenot he based quite a peculiar career around it. Not content with the mechanical metaphors of molecular biology, Campenot has studied living tissue as a delicate and complex mechanism that thrives by tweaking tiny imbalances in electrical charge.
If only the book were better prepared. Campenot’s enthusiasm for Feynman has him repeat the anecdote about lifting the world almost word for word, in the preface and introduction. Duplicating material is a surprisingly easy gaffe for a writer, and it is why we have editors. Where were they?
Campenot’s generous account ranges from Galvani’s discovery of animal electricity to the development of thought-controlled prosthetic limbs. He has high regard for popular science. But his is the rather fussy appreciation of the academic outsider who, uncertain of the form’s aesthetic potential, praises it for its utility. “The value of popularising science should never be underestimated because it occasionally attracts the attention of people who go on to make major contributions.” The pantaloonish impression he makes here is not wholly unrepresentative of the book.
Again, one might wish Campenot’s relationship with his editor had been more creative. Popular science writing rarely handles electricity well, let alone ion channels and membrane potentials. So, when it comes to developing suitable metaphors, Campenot is thrown on his own resources. His metaphors are as effective as one could wish for, but they suffer from repetition. One imagines the author wondering if he has done enough to nail his point, but with no one to reassure him.
Faults aside, this is a good book. Its mix of schoolroom electricity and sophisticated cell biology is highly eccentric but this, I think, speaks much in Campenot’s favour. The way organic tissue manipulates electricity, sending signals in broad electrical waves that can extend up to a third of a metre, is a dimension of biology we have taken on trust, domesticating it behind high-order metaphors drawn from computer science. Consequently, we have been unable to visualise how the forces in our cells actually behave. This was bound to turn out an odd endeavour. So be it. The odder, the better, in fact.