Shocking Frogs: Galvani, Volta, and the Electric Origins of Neuroscience
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"... and still we could never suppose that fortune were to be so friendly to us, such as to allow us to be perhaps the first in handling, as it were, the electricity concealed in nerves, in extracting it from nerves, and, in some way, in putting it under everyone's eyes."
With these words, Luigi Galvani announced to the world in 1791 his discovery that nervous conduction and muscle excitation are electrical phenomena. The result of more than years of intense experimental work, Galvani's milestone achievement concluded a thousand-year scientific search, in a field long dominated by the antiquated beliefs of classical science. Besides laying the grounds for the development of the modern neurosciences, Galvani's discovery also brought to light an invention that would forever change humankind's everyday life: the electric battery of Alessandro Volta.
In an accessible style, written for specialists and general readers alike, Shocking Frogs retraces the steps of both scientific discoveries, starting with the initial hypotheses of the Enlightenment on the involvement of electricity in life processes. So doing, it also reveals the inconsistency of the many stereotypes that an uncritical cultural tradition has imparted to the legacies of Galvani and Volta, and proposes a decidedly new image of these monumental figures.
manner”; Volta placed the bimetal arc on the skin of the “alive and intact” animal, often armed with thin metal “shirts” or “dresses,” and this became the ideal point of reference for interpreting the electrical phenomena involved in neuromuscular physiology. Returning to the Trattato, we can notice that its expository structure is more systematic than that in De viribus and that it is divided into numerous parts (12 “chapters”) according to the themes being considered rather than to the logic
member of the Institute of Sciences of Bologna. Beccaria had friendly relationships with several Bolognese savants, including Laura Bassi and Giuseppe Veratti, and addressed one of his works to Jacopo Beccari, Galvani’s mentor. His view of electrical phenomena had a great influence on Galvani’s research and was also taken by Alessandro Volta as a departing point for his study of electricity. In 1753 Beccaria published a treatise Dell’elettricismo artificiale e naturale (Of Artificial and Natural
test this method and, more generally, the use of electricity in therapy. They assigned this task to Giuseppe Veratti; he was both a physician and a naturalist interested in electrical studies and could make use of the electrical equipment in the laboratory created in their house by his wife, Laura Bassi. One year later Veratti published a book of Osservazioni fisico-mediche intorno alla elettricità (Physico-Medical Observations on Electricity), which represented an important episode in the early
metals in the hook and the arc was particularly appropriate in obtaining those movements,” a suspicion that was strengthened by a series of experiments planned to this aim. Galvani recognized that he was facing with a “marvellous” phenomenon, which “gave great importance to metals, so that they came to contain a different electricity in relation to their particular nature.” However, neither was this observation quite new nor did it constitute a decisive objection against the existence of animal
references to witnesses or details underlining the “reality” of the places (such as “the house of the most illustrious Jacopo Zambeccari” where an important experiment with metal arcs had been carried out). Some of Galvani’s experiments are illustrated in four plates included in De viribus that were meant to help the reader focus on the fundamental circumstances of the experiments described in the text but were also designed to give an impression of “reality” and 150 i Shocking Frogs