Books  General Natural History  History of Science 

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

By: Stanley Finger and Marco Piccolino

470 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations

Oxford University Press

Hardback | Sep 2011 | #194310 | ISBN-13: 9780195366723
Availability: Usually dispatched within 6 days Details
NHBS Price: £71.99 $92/€86 approx

About this book

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.

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.


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
References

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Biography

Stanley Finger is Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology at Washington University, St. Louis, MO.

Marco Piccolino is Professor of General Physiology and Lecturer in Science History, University of Ferrara, Italy.

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