Spark of life: There’s electricity in nature

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There is a belief, which has become commonplace of late thanks to the efforts of behavioural economists, that electricity is of little inherent interest. It’s just a means to various ends, a way to make our lives easier—the very definition of a utility.

A hollow, soulless thing.

I’m here to tell you that that ain’t necessarily so.

The origins of a word can tell us much about its hidden depths. The English word electricity is derived from the Greek elektron, which is translated as amber—the fossilised resin of conifers from the Tertiary period.

Amber is not only beautiful, or mysterious when it reveals the mummified corpse of a prehistoric beetle, fly or ant. Rub a piece of it and you will feel a little charge of energy.

That’s static electricity in action.

The word electric was apparently first used by Francis Bacon (the natural philosopher , not the artist) to describe materials like amber that attract other objects.

But these days electricity is more accurately referred to as electromagnetic energy, because it is the result of a flow of electrons—a current—between a positive and a negative charge. That is, electricity and magnetism are two dimensions of the same phenomenon.

‘You can’t move electrons or change a voltage without creating a magnetic field, and you can’t change a magnetic field without changing a voltage’‘.

Which makes it sound all very clinical or mechanical.

There are other ways of looking at it, though. In Greek mythology, the titan Prometheus stole fire from the gods and made it available to humans, for which crime he was chained to a rock, where an eagle fed nightly on his liver.

Every time we flick a switch we are indulging in a Promethean act, creating a mini-lightning bolt around our little domestic circuit.

And like Prometheus, we pay a price—not only because electricity can kill, but because we have become dependent on it to function in the modern world, and it has altered the diurnal rhythms honed over millions of years of mammalian evolution.

Every lightbulb is an artificial sun, and instead of us following its rhythms, they follow ours. The fire of the gods is now on tap, so to speak. And we seem to have become addicted to the flow.

Nowhere is the presence of electrical energy in nature more obvious than in storms.

A bolt of lightning is, in physical terms, the rapid, high-voltage discharge of energy between positive and negatively charged parts of clouds, or between them and the ground.

The upper part is generally positive, the lower part negative. The lighting flash is the cloud temporarily equalising the charge. This happens some 40-50 times per second around the world.

(That’s the scientific explanation. If you are an Indigenous Australian you might interpret lightning as the presence in the sky of a Rainbow Serpent—the same ancestral being than lies mostly dormant in waterholes and watercourses in northern Australia, coming to life as the summer monsoon sweeps over the coasts and savannahs.)

The most obvious connection between electricity or electromagnetism in nature and the electricity delivered via closed circuits is the way we Prometheans generate it.

Solar panels use silicone-based cells to create an electric field that is charged when hit by sunlight.

Plants convert light energy into chemical energy that in the case of fossil fuels is stored underground in solid or liquid form over millions of years before being released by burning, the heat converted to electrical energy in turbines.

Less immediately obvious is the fact that the Earth beneath our feet is a giant electromagnet.

As it spins, the molten metal core of our planet, as hot as the sun, creates a magnetic field that extends into outer space. Thus the North and South Poles and the utility of compasses.

The Earth’s magnetic field also shields the Earth from the solar wind of the Sun, without which protection there would be no life.

Looking up and out, the stars that we can see light years away through the visible light range of the electromagnetic spectrum also emit other wavelengths that can be detected by, say, gamma radiation detectors.

In this case, electromagnetism allows us to see though time as well as space, to witness events such as supernovae, the explosion of stars at the end of their lives.

I first became aware of electricity in nature when walking on a beach as a child.

A small crowd had gathered around what someone explained to me was an electric stingray. I was skeptical, and touched my toes to one of its wings. I got quite a shock, and was instantly converted.

These days I am reminded of organic electricity every time I swim in the ocean.

My body creates its own weak electromagnetic field which can be detected by sharks up to a kilometre away via receptors called the Ampullae of Lorenzini, jelly-filled pores on their snouts.

The (still unproven) theory behind personal electronic shark repellant devices is that, just as a shark may be attracted to one frequency, it is likely to be repelled by another. (Trouble is, each species seems to have its own unfavourite frequencies. It’s trial-and-terror process.)

Without electricity, the universe is nothing but inert matter. As celebrity physicist Professor Brian Cox put it so eloquently in his TV series Forces of Nature:

To create the state of life all you need is a battery with a flow of charged particles, in this case protons. The cascade of protons is the driver of complexity, the spark of life.

It’s the exquisite control of the proton waterfall that separates life from chemistry, the moth from [the] flame.

The process of creating human life from inert matter was mythologised in 1818 in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.

Although the novel is not specific, given Shelley’s interest in galvanism (the contraction of muscles stimulated by an electric current), the informed reader can assume that Dr Frankenstein’s monster was brought to life via the application of an electric current to his prone body.

The connection to electricity has been reinforced since he was depicted by Boris Karloff in the eponymous 1931 film with bolts, like battery terminals, in his neck.

The spectre of Frankenstein’s monster haunts modern science as a reminder of the potential for experiments to go horribly wrong.

But it is also a reminder of the soul of electricity—the way that it can help to animate the material world and give it meaning; without the spark, the monster remains merely a collection of body parts.

We fear this Promethean power, but the monster cannot help who he is, and asks only for the doctor to create a mate for him so that he may be happy. Fear is the real monster.

The presence of electricity in our bodies extends far beyond the way muscles contract when a weak current is applied; our surprised reaction to putting on a garment that crackles with static; or even the application of electric currents to induce seizures in the brains of people suffering from ‘treatment-resistant major depressive disorder’.

Every atom of every molecule of every cell in our body is composed of ‘a tiny but heavy positively charged core (protons and neutrons) surrounded by negatively charged electron cloud.

Protons are positively charges, neutrons have zero charge, and electrons have negative charge.’ We are electric animals.

At the other end of the spectrum of biological complexity, our brains and nervous systems are akin to giant electricity networks:

Although chemicals are required to send a message from neuron to neuron, it takes a different medium to transmit that message from the receiving neuron’s dendrites to its own axon terminals: electricity.

When the neurotransmitters trigger the receiving neuron to fire, it sends an electrical ‘action potential’ along its length the way that an electrical pulse flows down a metal wire.

Like wires, some axons even have an insulating coating, the fatty myelin sheath, to make the signal travel faster.

The bad news is that, ‘although neurone are the longest living cells in the body, large numbers of them die during migration and differentiation.’

Their death is associated with a host of degenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, while damage to the insulating coating, the myelin sheath is associated with the onset of multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune disorders.

The good news is that there is increasing evidence from the burgeoning science of neuroplasticity that new neurons can be created even into old age, not only to assist with learning and memory but to help treat some of the same diseases.

Ironically, one of the latest buzzwords in the electricity industry is ‘self-healing’ networks.

To avoid blackouts affecting large areas after, say, a natural disaster, network operators are installing devices to better monitor every bit of the grid, but also to ‘island’ downstream areas so that they can continue to operate as microgrids.

Energy takes many forms apart from electricity—not only within the electromagnetic spectrum from gamma and x-rays at the high end, through UV, infrared, visible light and radio waves all the way down to long-wave radiation, but also outside it: chemical, gravity, nuclear, elastic, motion, heat…

These are all physical forms of energy. What about emotional, mental, sexual and even spiritual energy— the ch’i of Chinese medicine; the chakras of Vedanta. Are they also related to electricity?

To the extent that they interact with our brains and nervous systems, yes. And in their employment of similar terminology and metaphors (tripping the light fantastic; enlightenment as a flash of insight; kundalini as an energy flow up the spine), also yes.

Beyond that, though, what is the relationship between, say, the electricity that flows when we see lightning or flick a switch, and the release of dopamine and oxytocin across the synapses between your neurons, enlivening your whole body, when your partner touches you after a long absence?

Are they really worlds apart, related only by analogy (‘opposites attract’), or are they merely gross and subtle, macro and micro, manifestations of the same phenomenon?

It is a connection worth dwelling on, because, as we move ever farther from our biological roots towards a digital and robotic future, electricity remains a constant.

Cyborgs may dream of electric sheep, but only if they are on standby power. No current, no life.

So next time you flick a switch…

Mark Byrne is TEC’s energy market advocate.  

  • Ren Stimpy

    Our energy transition can be accelerated with the use of some cheap electricity delivery devices. Every time a Nationals MP or ex Nats leader tries to deny climate change or its drought causing effects, zap them with the electric cattle prod.

    • Pedro

      Right in the Kundalini

      • Ren Stimpy

        Right in the Chakras.

  • Nick D

    Nice piece Mark, it was nice to revisit just how amazing this world is and how it fundamentally works .