Carnevale: A Spark of Genius

Why do conflicting ideas always have to conflict?

Why do conflicting ideas always have to conflict? In this modern world where all issues are divided into ;false dichotomies with two camps at opposite extremes and no common ground in between. We seem to think that ideas and debates can be run like football matches: brutally, with maximum opposition and the winner takes all. Surely there are more constructive and civilised ways to challenge the ideas of others? And indeed there are! It hasn’t always been like this and a wonderful example from science comes from the civilised and courteous world of late 18th century Italy. Born in Bologna, Luigi Galvani (1737-1798) was working at the University of Bologna as an anatomist when, in the early 1780s, he made a rather unusual and completely unexpected discovery. Legend has it that, while cutting open a frog’s leg, the steel scalpel in Galvani’s hand touched against a nerve which was being held at the other end by a brass hook. The leg twitched. Galvani realised that electricity was the cause of the movement in the dead tissue. Galvani had recently acquired a static electricity and was fascinated by why and how this mysterious device could produce a spark when its various parts were rubbed together. He conducted further experiments implicating this magical force in the movement of muscles and then went on to demonstrate that animal tissue has a natural electric current. It was Galvani’s ideas on electricity inside living tissue that indirectly breathed life into Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein. Galvani’s dissections and experiments withelectricity caught the attention of another Italian scientist, Alessandro Volta (1745-1827), at the University of Pavia. Volta was more a physicist than an anatomist like Galvani, so his appreciation of the experiments was from a more physical perspective. He repeated Galvani’s experiments and confirmed his original observations. Then a rather unusual collegial rivalry evolved between the two over explanations as to exactly what these experiments meant. Galvani thought that the tissue itself generated the electricity that made it move but Volta thought otherwise: that the electricity was coming from outside the animal. To settle the matter, Volta built a stack of alternating plates of copper and zinc separated by blotting paper soaked in acid. This pile (now known as a Voltaic Pile), when connected top to bottom, created an electric current. Volta had just invented the world’s fi rst battery. More importantly for his debate with Galvani, nothing in this pile was alive or had ever been living tissue. So Volta was able to demonstrate that electricity could be generated outside of an organism. Unfortunately, Galvani didn’t live to see the influence of the Voltaic Pile he inspired – he died in 1798, two years before Volta publishe the details of his battery. Volta went on to introduce the theory of electrical currents and just a few weeks after its unveiling, his Voltaic Pile enabled it to be shown that water could be separated into two different gasses. He was a rock star of science for his day. Volta included Napoleon among his greatest fans, and Napoleon had a special medal struck in Volta’s honour and made him a Count in 1801. Galvani’s experience with Napoleon was less auspicious: he was dismissed from the University of Bologna after refusing to take an oath of allegiance to Napoleon’s invading army. Volta had his name applied to the unit of electromotive force – the volt. In deference to his academic adversary, it was Volta who named the phenomenon of the electrical basis for nerve impulses as “Galvanism” Galvanism has subsequently been expanded to include the production of an electrical current through chemical means. The galvanometer, an instrument that measures small electrical currents, was also named after Galvani. As has been pointed out several times, the irony of this debate was that both Galvani and Volta were right. Galvani correctly deduced that it was electricity that made the body move and that there is electricity in every living cell. Volta was right in that the electricity observed stimulating a dead frog’s leg came from outside, not within the tissue. So perhaps we can take a leaf out of a very old Italian book. Perhaps we can coin our opposition to another’s position on an issue in collegial and constructive terms. The outcome of such civilised debates looks to be more constructive than the knock ’em down and grab–all mentality that drives ‘discussions’ in so many areas of our modern society. Or perhaps I’m being too idealistic. Late 18th century Italy is a world and several generations away from modern Australia. A more genteel time perhaps, where opposing ideas could flourish alongside each other in search of a mutually agreeable solution. An era long gone and replaced by the naked aggression of the modern world. RiAus will be presenting A Spark of Genius at 3pm on Saturday, February 8 at this year’s Carnevale Italian Festival at the Adelaide Showground carnevale-adelaide.com

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