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