Cover

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pp. 1-7

Contents

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pp. 8-9

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Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-xi

The impetus for this book came from a graduate seminar that I took in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1997. We were watching a film demonstrating Hubel and Wiesel’s orientation-selectivity experiments. On the screen, a greenish-white bar turns on and off and rotates against a dark background. ...

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Introduction

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pp. 1-6

We live in an electric world. Every moment of our lives unfolds within a vast assemblage of electrical systems, most of our own devising. These systems heat and cool our buildings, process, cook, and preserve our food; pump our water and waste; light the darkness; and power machines great and small. Electrical technologies allow us to see, hear, and ...

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1 Strongly Electric Fish

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pp. 7-35

The strongly electric African catfish Malapterurus electricus inhabits the River Nile and most of the freshwater lakes and rivers south of the Sahara, from the Senegal and Niger Rivers to the Zambezi. It feeds on other fish, usually just after sunset, stunning its prey with a volley of electric shocks that can last for several seconds. It has taste buds embedded ...

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2 Modeling Animal Electricity

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pp. 36-64

Attempts to make an artificial electric fish eventually led to the human discovery and occupation of an electric world. The practice of drawing inspiration for human-made technologies from nature—called biomimesis or biomimicry—is on the rise in our time, but it is certainly not a new idea. Hominins appropriated the hides and furs of other animals for ...

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3 Electrophysiology

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pp. 65-92

As physicians and natural philosophers explored the physiological implications and therapeutic applications of electricity, they came to new understandings of sickness and health, life, and death. While working with preparations made from the flesh of living or recently killed animals, they also discovered that it was possible to build “artificial electric ...

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4 The Spark of Life

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pp. 93-122

Unlike Mesmer’s magnetic fluid, electricity remained miraculous. In 1774, a child named Sophia Greenhill fell from a window and was taken to Middlesex Hospital, apparently dead. The surgeons and apothecary could do nothing for her. After twenty minutes, a Mr. Squires of Soho was allowed to use electricity to try to revive her. He shocked various ...

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5 Evolutionary Theories

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pp. 123-148

What role did electricity play in the emergence of inorganic form, the development of an individual organism, or the trajectory of a species? For those inclined to see them, there were meaningful patterns everywhere: geological strata resembled the layers of a voltaic pile; networks of nerves looked like Lichtenberg figures; animals of different species ...

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6 Electric Currents

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pp. 149-177

In the nineteenth century, electricity profoundly changed human capacities for perception and action. Electricity, magnetism, and light were unified into a single domain of electromagnetic phenomena, and the new technology of telegraphy made it possible to communicate over distances at the speed of light. The telegraph served as a metaphor for nervous ...

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7 Discovering Electric Worlds

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pp. 178-205

The experience of animals, including people, is largely constituted by the kinds of things that they are capable of perceiving. Some insects can see in the ultraviolet spectrum; some snakes detect infrared radiation emitted by their prey; bats and dolphins have sonar for echolocation; and so on. As a species, our inclination—right or wrong—has always been ...

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Conclusion Nothing but a Movement of Electrons

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pp. 206-213

In a sense, all life consists of the colonization of an electric world. But to see that, we have to go back to the very beginning. Within a few seconds of the big bang—an eternity in cosmological terms—the temperature of the expanding universe had dropped enough for electrons to appear. All interactions between matter seem to be governed by a few fundamental ...

Notes

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pp. 215-236

Bibliography

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pp. 237-276

Index

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pp. 277-287