The Electric Universe | David Bodanis

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Published in: 2006

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Electric power has existed without interruption for more than 13 billion years. There are almost always equally large positive and negative charges in everything around us. The original electric charges from the Big Bang have long since spread. Many of the individual charges were destroyed as they traveled in the galaxies, but new charges were created instead. No exception has ever been found; the sum of electric charge in the universe has never changed.

ELECTRICITY IS EVERYWHERE. Think GPS navigation: hundreds of miles above, electrons are led back and forth within the transmitters of GPS satellites. The force field extending from these electrons begins to wobble each time the electrons move halfway down to earth. It is a GPS position signal that is sent. The wave that reaches the ground is invisible to us and no one can hear it. Also keep in mind that electrical cables extend into our brains; force fields extend into our cells, even our DNA is controlled by potential electrical forces. Anesthetics flow down to electrical pumps in our nerve cells and numb us; Prozac locks into electrical receiving devices in the brain and keeps our grief in check.

VOLT’S BATTERY. A breakthrough to penetrate this hidden world came in the 1790s when Italian Alessandro Volta realized that if he pressed a coin-shaped copper plate against one side of his tongue and a zinc plate against the other, and then touched the tips of the two coins together, a stinging sensation occurred over his tongue. He had found the world’s first ‘battery’. Volt soon found that all two metals work if separated by some saliva or saline.

MICHEAL FARADAY. Michael Faraday, born in 1791, did most to reveal these invisible force fields. He was born more than a century before the electron was discovered. Faraday respected Newton but had learned to think for himself. But he was not fluent in mathematics and had therefore difficulties to convince those around him of his ideas.

SEEING IS BELIEVING. After many attempts in the 1850s, it was finally possible to send financial news between remote cities via telegraphs, after laying a cable deep under the Atlantic. It was this gigantic technology project that convinced many scientists that our world is permeated by invisible waves. In the 1860s, innovation slowed down in part due to the American Civil War, and in 1875 came the first telephone. The vibrating microphone leads a wire to send an electric current that grows with an exact copy of the uneven pattern.

BELL, EDISON & ARTIFICIAL LIGHT. Bell’s phone threatened to undermine the telegraph industry, so the telegraph man William Orton financed a young Thomas Edison in 1877 with the mission to crush Bell. Edison eventually made the phones much better. Edison also sought to innovate in artificial lamps and to make this practical, he had to create many related inventions.

THE ELECTRIC MOTOR. Small electric motorcycle engines had existed for decades, but Edison sought out to improve these. The engine came to be powerful enough to pull a ton or more lift straight up into a tall building which was crucial for skyscrapers. Electrically powered roller coasters and brightly lit arcades appeared on the outskirts of cities in America and in Western Europe. In 1901, most of the largest American cities had amusement parks. Factories powered by electricity could use the same technology, which meant that it was not necessary to have a steam engine and heavy coal supply on the premises. For the first time in history, glucose was no longer the only source of energy available for tedious activities such as carrying, cleaning, and washing.

QUANTUM ENTERS. In late Victorian times, the vision of electrons as hard little balls led to the technologies of telephones, light bulbs, and electric motors. Faraday’s and Hertz’s understanding of waves had led to radio and radar being central to World War II. But the centuries-long quest to see what was happening inside an electrical line seemed over when. J. J. Thomson received the Nobel Prize and was hailed as the man who explained how Victorian electricity really worked. If they were right, the world was made up of electrons moving in strange teleportation jumps – known as “quantum jumps” – and in sudden stops and starts.

THE COMPUTER. Realization that electrons could “jump” through space and make them start and stop in new places opened the way for the computer. The electric thinking machine, according to Alan Turing, could sort and arrange so many different “thoughts” that it would need thousands, maybe millions, of switches at the same time.

THE SEMICONDUCTOR. Brattain and Bardeen used their knowledge of quantum mechanics and new chemical manufacturing techniques and presented a solution in 1947 – that silicon could act as a conductor and carry electron currents. The semiconductor was invented. They had built the on / off switch at the atomic level that Turing had been looking for. Steam engines, car engines and aircraft jet engines waste enormous energy overcoming friction. But these silicones can move electric currents in one direction or another, and the rock itself does not have to move physically.

SILICON VALLEY WAS BORN. In June 1948, the Transistor was launched consisting entirely of cold, solid substances. Telephones from the Victorian era were clumsy with large wires and switches. They needed many trillions of bouncing electrons to transmit a small whisper. With a transistor inside, it was possible to rely on much smaller batteries, because fewer electrons needed to be moved around. Silicon Valley was born.

SENDING FORCE FIELDS. Electrons does not shoot out of the sockets in your house. When you connect something to a wall outlet and turn it on, the controlled field flies into your home, takes a stand inside any computer or light bulb, and turns on the electrons that have already been waiting there. When you pull a plug out, the force field can no longer enter. When you call someone, all you do is send an invisible force field, which shakes the electrons already waiting in your listener.

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