Galvani v. Volta

Day 300! 146-154

Dr. Sunshine

10/28/20232 min read

One of my current reads is We Are Electric, by Sally Adee. The premise is to uncover the secrets of bioelectricity and its potential for health and wellness. This is the sort of thing I've been getting at with this sunrise experiment and grounding. Since it has been published in the mainstream, I am very curious what direction it is going to take. I look forward to reading further.

However, right at the beginning I am thoroughly enjoying the scientific history lesson. Adee lays out the story of two competing lines of thought regarding electricity being animal in origin vs artificial starting in the late 1700's. Alessandro Volta was exploring mechanical means of generating electricity, while Luigi Galvani was exploring how electricity worked in animals. The way the book tells it, these two camps were civil, but most definitely at odds, believing they were right and necessarily the other side was wrong. In fact, they were essentially both right, simply studying different applications of electricity. The pursuit of prestige and recognition blinded them to this, and eventually contributed to the suppression of one view. Volta was able to present convincing counterarguments to Galvani's experiments and gradually swayed the scientific community to his way of thinking. But the final blow to bioelectricity came from government intervention. Bologna, where these men were doing their work, fell under French occupation by Napolean's Cisalpine Republic. The Republic required every university professor to swear an oath of loyalty. Volta did it, while Galvani refused. Galvani was stripped up his academic positions and his research effectively buried and the line of research frozen for years.

This story brings to mind some very important points to consider when evaluating "scientific data", particularly in modern times. The old adage "Follow the money" comes to mind. The trick is it's not always money. It usually is, but sometimes it is influence or prestige, or a cushy job appointment. Galvani and Volta were both pursuing prestige, influence and academic appointments within the scientific community. The researcher, the entities funding the researcher, and the journal that may or may not publish their findings all have different motivations. It gets especially hazy when you consider the biggest funder is typically a government, and you don't have to look too hard to see governments that don't have their constituents' best interests at heart.

As a kid, one of the the things I loved about the sciences was that I, naively, believed it was the purest pursuit of knowledge and truth to be applied universally to the betterment of humankind. I think a lot of scientists at least start out thinking this way. I think Galvani believed it. He didn't want to compromise that belief by pledging an oath to his occupying government, and we see what happened to him. But it turns out, everything costs money, so while even if actual research results don't get massaged (but sometimes do), at a minimum the unprofitable ideas get abandoned. To that I don't have any easy answers. Also, this is not to say that all research is garbage, but one really has to pay attention to all the players and think about what their motivation is with respect to results and interpretation, positive or negative.

All I really know is Galvani was on the right track with his research and because of various circumstances we lost about 200 years in the line of research on bioelectricity and the potential impacts of widespread application of electricity and wireless technology and restriction of sunlight on our well-being. That is why I am getting up for every sunrise. Hopefully by getting up early every day I can start making up for lost time.