The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body

Frances Ashcroft, Author
Frances Ashcroft. Norton, $28.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-393-07803-9
Reviewed on: 05/28/2012
Release date: 09/01/2012
Open Ebook - 352 pages - 978-0-393-08954-7
Paperback - 341 pages - 978-0-393-34679-4
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With style and enthusiasm, Oxford professor Ashcroft (Life at the Extremes) reveals the ubiquitous role electricity plays in our bodies. In the late 1700s, Italian scientist Luigi Galvani’s experiments with frogs showed that animals produced their own electricity. His nephew Giovanni Aldini conducted public demonstrations using the corpses of recently executed criminals that gave the appearance of “re-animation” and probably sparked Mary Shelley’s imagination when she created Frankenstein as well as the Victorian idea of the “mad scientist.” But scientists didn’t know how that electricity was produced in the body until the 1970s, when physicist Erwin Neher and physiologist Bert Sakmann measured the minuscule flow of current as potassium and sodium ions moved through tiny gates—ion channels—in a cell membrane. With this grounding, Ashcroft widens the story to explore everything from how different nerve agents, like puffer fish venom, curare, and botox, work, to how electric eels generate electricity, how defibrillators stabilize the heart’s rhythms, and how our brains interpret sensory data. Ashcroft’s writing is clear and accessible, offering surprising insights into the “electrical machine” we call the human body. 50 illus. Agent: Felicity Bryan, Felicity Bryan Literary Agency. (Sept.)
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