Dark Bilious Vapors

But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors....
--Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation I

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03/16/2005: More Book News

Another favorite author of mine is David Bodanis, who hails from "West Rogers Park" -- my old stomping grounds in Chicago. Bodanis has written these two wonderful GEMS I have in my library: "The Secret House" and "E=MC2"

This article Chicago sparked creative impulse for David Bodanis by Patrick T. Reardon (Chicago Tribune) is about his latest offering: "Electric Universe."

To read more about this book and author, click on the "more' button.

"On the opening page of "Electric Universe" (Crown, $24, 308 pages), David Bodanis writes about his father's arrival in Chicago in the 1920s. And he speculates how his father would have been affected if Chicago had suffered a power outage then.

The answer: Not much.

Elevators and phones wouldn't have worked, but, in many ways, life would have gone on much as it had when his father was growing up in Poland. Crops would have been harvested. Trains, running on coal, would still have brought food and other necessities to cities.

Today, though, the loss of electricity, particularly if it were on a wide and long-lasting basis, would be nothing less than catastrophic, eventually affecting everything from cell phones to ATMs, from gas stations to hospitals to grocery stores.

"Electric Universe" is an appealingly readable history of the deepening human understanding of electricity over the past two centuries -- and how this amazing new knowledge has changed the way we live in vast ways.

Those changes, as Bodanis notes, haven't been limited to the landscape. We communicate differently today because of discoveries into how the element silicon speeds or stops an electrical circuit. Even our moods and physical reactions can be shifted by tinkering with the electrical particles in our body through anesthetics, Prozac and Viagra.

On a recent visit back to the city where he spent his first two decades, the 49-year-old Bodanis, now a Londoner, spoke of how Chicago exemplifies the changes he describes in his book -- and how he came to dedicate his book to the city. Here's an edited transcript:

Q. I was surprised. I saw your dedication, and I thought: Oh, you're going to use Chicago throughout the book. But it was only mentioned a couple of places.

A. Chicago pervades the book. It's sort of a homage to my late father. He grew up in a civilization that was left over from this much earlier time, and the idea that he came here and all these things rushed forward during his life -- that it changed so recently -- really startled me.

When I was a little boy, I would sometimes look and see the picture of this big strong man walking on a downtown street. He worked at the Board of Trade. It seemed that those skyscrapers and streets had been there since time immemorial.

Remember how I described [the effects of a total worldwide power outage] -- a city like this would last maybe three days, do you think?

Q. It is kind of scary when you imagine it, especially for a modern person who has virtually no skills at living off the land.

A. And suppose you did know how to hunt -- you can't have six million people sprawling into western Illinois [in search of game]. It's not going to work

Q. In your dedication, you mention something to the effect that Chicago is where you started to learn how to learn.

A. I like the attitude here that nothing is off-limits for learning. The city was always, throughout the whole book, a guide or image. When I was typing away in London, I'd tape up some pictures of Chicago over my desk -- from right now and older pictures. I wouldn't [fixate on] them, and I wasn't describing the city. It was more the idea that, by reading this book, suddenly the richness of the city and the move your parents or grandparents made here, all these became understandable.

I like the idea that right in the water of [Lake Michigan] are all these salts and little electric charges floating around, and, by understanding how these work, you can understand how to control Prozac and Viagra in the body. I love the idea that understanding the atom inside ordinary water, you can understand the atom in our brain.

Q. You make the point in the book -- the wonderful point -- that, once you have electric motors providing a substitute for manual labor, suddenly the servants don't get dirty and are seen in a more egalitarian way.

A. Washing clothes before electricity -- the fuel and the boiling water and the scrubbing -- you don't have time for reading books and reading newspapers. You think: `Let me defer to people who know better.' But, once you don't have to waste your time doing that, once working on a farm is so much easier, your whole attitude shifts: `I'm not going to take this crap from anybody.' It isn't that electricity caused people to vote, but it really helped.

When you're a kid, you just accept the world you're in. You don't realize that it was created -- that it was shaped and created. To write a book about just how science works, nobody's that interested. I'm not that interested. But, if you shape it within the real feel of people's lives, if you wrap the science inside in a real, natural way, not only is the reader interested, but the writer's interested too.

I remember when there was just one telephone in the house, when I was a kid. And, if my sisters, the teenagers, were getting a lot of phone calls, my folks would say, `Enough of the phone calls.' Now, you have your own phone lines, the kids do. So there's less control about who they're going out with and what group.

We're old enough to remember when there was one music system in the house -- if you had any. The thing about transistor radios -- they were so small and light. The moment you make them, kids can have their own music.

It isn't that that caused Elvis Presley to take off, but, without it, kids would have to go along with what the parents were willing to have in the house.

Q. I remember transistor radios. Every kid had them. They were really cheap.

A. They were freedom. I remember listening to the World Series under my desk at school. Even if your parents didn't want that [rock 'n' roll] music, you could just do it."

Karen on 03.16.05 @ 07:17 PM CST

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