Tuesday, November 22, 2011


The first ten summers we spent in our Irish cottage we had no electricity. It would have taken five poles to bring the wires to our house, and the electric company charged $1000 a pole, beyond our means at the time.

But this was the 1970s. We were younger. Clothes got washed in the kitchen sink, and dried with a hand wringer and line. Kerosene lamps provided light. I typed my books on a manual typewriter. We cooked and heated hot water with bottled gas. It was, in retrospect, romantic. But it was summer, with long hours of daylight. And, as I said, we were young.

I can't imagine doing it today. Surely there is no technology that has changed our lives more than the electricity that comes into our homes on a wire. Lighting, cooling, heating, ironing, cooking, and entertainment at the flick of a switch. Cheap, silent, invisible energy at our beck and call, flowing though a wire.

Magic. Wonderful.

One of my scientific heroes is Michael Faraday -- gentle, brilliant, infused with wonder. No one did more to wrest electricity from the gods and make it do our bidding than he. For most people of his time, electricity was a curious novelty, a parlor game. Faraday understood it another way:
Electricity is often called wonderful, beautiful; but…The beauty of electricity or of any other force is not that the power is mysterious, and unexpected, touching every sense unawares in turn, but that it is under law, and that the taught intellect can govern it largely.
There you have it, as perfect a statement of the scientific spirit as you are likely to find.

Everyone who flicks a switch to turn on the light and at the same time espouses a belief in miracles is embracing a kind of cognitive dissonance. The lightning bolt that jags across the sky is not the whim of a willful Zeus -- or as we might say, an act of God -- it is lawful. Behind all of the apparent randomness of nature, law prevails. And the taught intellect can govern it.