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128 ✸ Galileo and the Leaning Tower of Pisa 7 Coulomb’s Impossible Experiment? In many schoolbooks, electricity shows up as just another dry, boring , difficult, and monotonous subject. But it wasn’t always that boring. Electricity seemed to hold the secret of life after death. In 1802, an Italian experimenter, Giovanni Aldini, performed demonstrations before French scientists,using dead animals and prongs to transmit electrical currents. Witnesses reported: “Aldini, after having cut off the head of a dog, passed the current of a strong battery: the mere contact triggers truly frightful convulsions. The mouth opens, teeth rattle, eyes roll in their sockets; and if reason did not deter the agitated imagination, one would almost believe that the animal is again suffering and alive.”1 Aldini also had the nerve to conduct this kind of experiment on human bodies, publicly. And audiences had the courage to witness the results . Back then, punishment for criminals did not always end at death. In London, for example, a man could be sentenced to death followed by a public dissection. Bodies were cut and flayed and organs were pulled out for the edification and education of the masses, and also as a continuation of penal torture. On 18 January 1803, George Foster was executed by hanging at Newgate Prison, London, for murdering his wife and child by drowning them. His lukewarm corpse was then taken to a house where Professor Giovanni Aldini would “galvanize” it. The proceedings were reported in the Newgate Calendar: The Malefactor’s Bloody Register.2 In front of a medical audience, Aldini applied an electrical rod to the cadaver’s mouth and another to an ear, whereupon the face grimaced horribly, his jaw quivered, and an eye opened. Aldini also applied the electrical rods to the corpse’s rear end, causing the entire body, legs 128 and arms, to convulse.3 Some spectators feared that murderer George Foster was coming back to life. One old official of the Surgeons’ Company was so alarmed that soon after he left he died of fright.4 The Bloody Register noted that if a convict were revived, he would have been killed by hanging again. Electricity was a high-stakes field in the early 1800s:Aldini’s ultimate aim was to learn to“command the vital powers,”and disturbed by the implications of electrical experiments, Mary Shelley wrote the horror novel Frankenstein. Electricity seemed to hold not only the power of life and death, but also of sanity, as Aldini reportedly cured mentally ill patients by inflicting electric shock. Even decades earlier, in the 1740s, when experimenters had found a way to store electrical fluid in a so-called Leyden jar, electricity was used to amuse and perplex, by administering it even to dozens of men in a chain, all of whom would then scream and contort. Moreover, electricity could be used to really do the presumably impossible—to move things without touching them. Since ancient times, people had seen that when certain materials are rubbed, especially amber, small things such as hair move toward them. Amber could pick up small bits of stuff from the ground. According to Diogenes Laertius, the ancient philosopher Thales of Miletus believed that there was soul or life in inanimate objects such as amber.5 This precious yellow substance is the fossilized resin of extinct coniferous trees, and since it was yellow, the Greeks called it elektron, as it resembled the pale gold metal that had the same name. That metal, electrum, is a natural alloy of silver and gold, and its root word, elektor, meant“beaming sun.” By the late 1700s, numerous devices harnessed the divine powers of electricity. It became increasingly important to understand electricity. How does it work? Could it be understood in terms of natural laws? If anyone could find a mathematical order in electrical effects, then electricity would be understood not as an occult wonder, but as a natural phenomenon. A solution to this problem was advanced, some fifteen years prior to Aldini’s works, by a retired French engineer: Charles Augustin Coulomb. What Coulomb claimed to find amounted to saying that electricity obeys the following algebraic law: Coulomb’s Impossible Experiment? ✸ 129 It states that two electrical charges (q1 and q2 ) attract or repel one another with a force that increases as the square of the distance (d) between them decreases. The remarkable thing about this equation is that it is formally identical to Newton’s law of gravity: That is, the force...


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