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

Hardcover | August 1, 2011

byStanley Finger, Marco Piccolino

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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. Thediscovery 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 physicalside, 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 torporand 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 thatrapid 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 theiranatomy.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 wouldtransform 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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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. Thediscovery of the electrical nature of these fi...

Stanley Finger is a Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology at Washington University. Marco Piccolino is a Professor of General Physiology and a Lecturer in Science History at the University of Ferrara, Italy.

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Format:HardcoverDimensions:496 pages, 8.9 × 11.1 × 1.18 inPublished:August 1, 2011Publisher:Oxford University PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0195366727

ISBN - 13:9780195366723

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Table of Contents

Part I: Introduction1. The Allure of Electric Fishes: Humboldt's ObsessionPart II: Ancient Cultures2. The Shocking Catfish of the Nile3. Torpedoes in the Greco-Roman World: Pt. 1. Wonders of Nature Between Science and Myth4. Torpedoes in the Greco-Roman World: Pt. 2. From Therapeutic Shocks to Theories of the Discharge5. Byzantine and Islamic WritingsPart III: Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period6. Torpedoes: From the Scholastics through the Renaissance7. Rediscovering The Torporific Catfishes8. The "Eels" of South America9. From the Occult to Mechanical Theories of the DischargePart IV: The Emergence of Fish Electricity10. The Electrical World of Benjamin Franklin11. Animal Spirits and Physiology12. First Steps Toward Fish Electricity13. The Dutch, the Eel, and ElectricityPart V: The Royal Society and the Coveted Spark14. Edward Bancroft's Guiana Eels and London Connections15. John Walsh's Scientific Journey16. The Royal Society and Interdisciplinary Science17. Out of the Guianas: The American Philosophical Society and the Eel18. Alexander Garden: A Linnaean in South Carolina and Captain Banker's Eels19. Sparks in Darkness and the Eel's Electrical Sense20. Public Knowledge: Newspapers, Magazines, and "Shocking" PoetryPart VI: From Fish to Nerve Physiology and Back21. Galvani's Animal Electricity22. Electric Fishes in Volta's Path to the Battery23. Galvanism Contra "Voltaism": Electric Fishes and the "Unsolvable" Dilemma24. Electric Fishes in the Nineteenth Century25. The Changing Neurohysiological Setting26. Understanding the Shock Mechanisms: A Twentieth Century OdysseyEpilogueAppendix I: Names with Birth and Death DatesReferences