The Shocking History of Electric Fishes

The Shocking History of Electric Fishes : From Ancient Epochs to the Birth of Modern Neurophysiology

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This book looks at how three kinds of strongly electric fishes literally became "electrical", and how they helped to change the sciences and medicine. These fishes are the flat torpedo rays common to the Mediterranean, the electric catfishes of Africa, and an "eel" from South America. The discovery of the electrical nature of these fishes in the second half of the 18th century was the starting point of the two fundamental advances in the sciences: on the physiological side, the demonstration that nerve conduction and muscle excitation are electrical phenomena, and on the physical side, the invention of the electric battery. Starting with catfish tomb drawings from Ancient Egypt and colorful descriptions of torpedoes from the Classical Era, the authors show how these fishes were both fascinating and mysterious to the ancients. After all, not only could they produce torpor and temporary numbness when touched, they could stun through intermediaries, such as wet nets and spears. Various explanations were given for these remarkable actions in ancient times, including the idea that they might release some sort of cold venom. Through the Renaissance, they also tended to be associated with occult and magical qualities. During the 1600s, natural philosophers speculated that rapid movements of specialized muscles could account for their actions. This idea was widely accepted until the 1750s, when the possibility that their shocks might be electrical began to be discussed. Showing how researchers set forth to provide support for fish electricity is a major focus of this book. Here the authors transport us into the jungles of South America and later show how some live eels were transported to London, where John Walsh demonstrated in1776 that they can actually spark. Subsequent chapters deal with further evidence for specialized fish electricity and how electric fishes helped to change ideas about even our own physiology. The authors also show how these fish remained a part of medicine, and how Volta modeled his revolutionary "pile" or electric battery on their anatomy. From beginning to end, this drama is firmly anchored in the philosophy and science of the day. Moreover, with biographical information about the key players, readers can fully appreciate what they were thinking as they tried to understand one of Nature's greatest puzzles - a mystery that would transform nerve and muscle physiology in ways that earlier generations could not have anticipated. Although a scholarly volume, the book's style is generally narrative and, with its hundreds of magnificent illustrations, it should appeal to a large audience.show more

Product details

  • Hardback | 496 pages
  • 223.52 x 279.4 x 30.48mm | 1,859.72g
  • Oxford University Press Inc
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • 0195366727
  • 9780195366723
  • 1,298,991

Review quote

The book is more than a history of the electric fish; it is also a survey of the history of science, introducing all themes and approaches in this discipline in a relevant chronological sequence. This detailed work will be most useful to professional scientists/ historians in ichthyology neurobiology, and the history of the medical sciences. * CHOICE *show more

About Stanley Finger

Stanley Finger is Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology at Washington University, St. Louis, M0 Marco Piccolino is Professor of General Physiology and Lecturer in Science History, University of Ferrara, Italy.show more

Table of contents

PART I: INTRODUCTION ; 1- The Allure of Electric Fishes: Humboldt's Obsession ; PART II: ANCIENT CULTURES ; 2- The Shocking Catfish of the Nile ; 3- Torpedoes in the Greco-Roman World: ; Pt. 1. Wonders of Nature Between Science and Myth ; 4- Torpedoes in the Greco-Roman World: ; Pt. 2. From Therapeutic Shocks to Theories of the Discharge ; 5- Byzantine and Islamic Writings ; PART III: MIDDLE AGES TO THE EARLY MODERN PERIOD ; 6- Torpedoes: From the Scholastics through the Renaissance ; 7- Rediscovering The Torporific Catfishes ; 8- The "Eels" of South America ; 9- From the Occult to Mechanical Theories of the Discharge ; PART IV: THE EMERGENCE OF FISH ELECTRICITY ; 10- The Electrical World of Benjamin Franklin ; 11- Animal Spirits and Physiology ; 12- First Steps Toward Fish Electricity ; 13- The Dutch, the Eel, and Electricity ; PART V: THE ROYAL SOCIETY AND THE COVETED SPARK ; 14- Edward Bancroft's Guiana Eels and London Connections ; 15- John Walsh's Scientific Journey ; 16- The Royal Society and Interdisciplinary Science ; 17- Out of the Guianas: The American Philosophical Society and the Eel ; 18- Alexander Garden: A Linnaean in South Carolina and Captain Banker's Eels ; 19- Sparks in Darkness and the Eel's Electrical Sense ; 20- Public Knowledge: Newspapers, Magazines, and "Shocking" Poetry ; PART VI: FROM FISH TO NERVE PHYSIOLOGY AND BACK ; 21- Galvani's Animal Electricity ; 22- Electric Fishes in Volta's Path to the Battery ; 23- Galvanism Contra "Voltaism": Electric Fishes and the "Unsolvable" Dilemma ; 24- Electric Fishes in the Nineteenth Century ; 25- The Changing Neurohysiological Setting ; 26- Understanding the Shock Mechanisms: A Twentieth Century Odyssey ; EPILOGUE ; APPENDIX I: Names with Birth and Death Dates ; REFERENCESshow more

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