New Discoveries Show Electricity Governs Our Lives (Feb, 1934)
New Discoveries Show Electricity Governs Our Lives
By Edwin Teale
EXPLORERS, working in one of the strangest realms of science, are unearthing curious, dramatic facts. The way autos run, the way seeds sprout, the way eggs hatch, the way radios function, and even the way we feel when we get up in the morning, the latest tests have shown, are affected by flowing, invisible charges of electric power. Recently, experiments in the laboratories of many lands have added to our knowledge of the magical work of electricity in the air.
In Italy, one scientist has sent electric waves racing through the atmosphere to alter the heredity of plants. In Holland, another has used them to kill bacteria and preserve foods. In Germany, a third has obtained astonishing results by administering electrified air to hospital patients. In the United States, two of the country’s foremost surgeons have just announced the discovery that minute electrical charges are vital to our brains and bodies.
From their study of electrical winds and magnetic storms, solar smoke and electrified dust, the workers hope to find the answers to age-old puzzles of Nature. Many scientists believe that the keys to the most baffling enigmas of earth, the mysteries of life, heredity, and death, lie locked in infinitesimal particles charged with electricity. No other field of modern research is so packed with mystery and promise.
One first-class mystery occurred not long ago near Denver, Colo.
More than a hundred automobiles on the road between Denver and Boulder were caught in a howling gale. Flying sand grains filled the air. Suddenly the motors in the cars began to stop.
All along the road, stranded motorists churned their selfstarters unable to understand why the engines wouldn’t function.
Then the wind abated, the engines started, and the cars rolled on. Some mysterious force, generated by the fury of the storm, had thrown the ignition systems temporarily out of order.
This weird performance recalls the rumors during the World War of a mystery ray that was supposed to stop motors and bring down planes. A few weeks ago, an Austrian announced he had actually perfected such an apparatus. According to his claims, the invention projects ultra-short electric waves into the sky to interfere with ignition systems of planes.
A hint of what happened to the cars on the Colorado road is, given by a discovery that has been made by scientists in several parts of the world. Sand storms, it has been found, always generate electricity. Sometimes, the electric particles, or ions, they produce are positive, sometimes negative. It seems to depend upon the chemical composition of the sand and dust. In South Africa, where the rock is largely quartz, the electric particles are always positive; in England, where limestone is the prevailing rock, dust clouds carried by the wind from well-traveled roads are always ionized with charges of the ooposite, or negative, electricity.
Applying this knowledge, Richard E. Vollrath, a young California inventor, has developed an ingenious sand-storm generator. It sends blasts of dust-laden air through copper tubes, generating electricity which is stored in a huge metal sphere. During one test, the electrical charge thus built up is said to have reached 260,000 volts.
The fact that the power of your auto engine varies according to the amount of electricity in the atmosphere was suggested by experiments made at the U. S. Bureau of Standards, in Washington, D. C, last spring. The air at the carburetor intake was charged with different concentrations of ions and the power of the motor was found to fluctuate as the number of electrified particles changed.
At the present time, radio reception is the best it has been since 1923. Long distance signals are coming in more clearly and regularly than at any other time in the last decade. Changes in atmospheric electricity, caused by a minimum of sunspots, is accepted as the explanation. In regular cycles of approximately eleven years, these volcanoes of fiery gas on the surface of the sun increase and decrease in number. They are now at their lowest point. During the next five years, an increasing number will troop across the face of the sun until the high point is reached about 1939. Then they will become fewer and fewer until, in 1945, they will have disappeared entirely and another sunspot cycle will have come to an end.
To learn more about the relation of sunspots and radio, a famous astronomer and a noted engineer have been making tests for the last seven years. They are Dr. Harlan T. Stetson, Director of the Perkins Observatory at Ohio Wesleyan University, and Dr. Greenleaf W. Pickard, radio inventor and one of the first men in America to transmit speech by electrical waves. While Dr. Stetson observed and photographed the sunspots from day to day, his co-worker noted accompanying variations in the strength of radio waves received from a distant broadcasting station.
When the spots were increasing, during 1926, 1927, and 1928, the radio signals grew fainter and fainter. But from 1929 on, as the spots decreased, they gained in strength. The reason, the scientists conclude, is that the huge envelope of ionized particles which surrounds the earth and is known, after its discoverers, as the Kennelly-Heaviside layer, is affected by changes in the sun.
Like an immense cathode ray tube, the sun bombards the earth with streams of electrons. As these strike our outer atmosphere, they break up its tiny particles into positive and negative ions. This blanket of electrified particles, some seventy miles above the earth’s surface, serves as a gigantic mirror, reflecting or bending sky-bound radio waves back to earth. It is only because the waves are thus reflected or refracted by this shell of ions that they are able to travel long distances and circle the earth.
The degree to which the layer is ionized depends upon the activity of the sun. When the sun is most active, that is, when it is dotted with the most sunspots, the greatest number of electrons shoot from it and increased ionization of the Kennelly-Heaviside layer pushes it down nearer the earth’s surface. This in turn bends the radio waves back more abruptly and cuts down the distance they travel.
On the other hand, any decrease in the activity of the sun reduces the intensity of the ionization of the layer, allows it to thin out and rise, thus bending back the waves less abruptly and sending them for longer distances along the surface of the earth. In this manner, the expanding and contracting of a shell-like reflector surrounding the earth, controls the effective distance radio waves will travel.
The moon, as well as the sun, Dr. Stetson reports, has a definite influence over radio reception. Analyzing signals broadcast between Chicago and Boston, he found their strength increased as the moon dipped below the horizon and decreased as it rose overhead. This is due, he believes, to radium rays from the moon, which tend to push down the layer as the moon passes above, thus reducing the distance radio waves can travel.
On all sides of usâ€”floating in the air, streaming from the sun, coursing through our bodies, hidden in the things we eatâ€” are minute charges of electricity. Only in recent years have we known much about these invisible ions. It is thought they usually start out as atoms from which an electron is removed. On sunny days, it is known, there are more ions in the air than on cloudy days; on warm days more than on cold days; on clear days more than when smoke pollutes the sky.
From hour to hour, even from minute to minute, the number of ions in the air varies. It shifts according to the ebb and flow of a titanic battle which goes on unceasingly and unseen around us. This is the struggle between the forces that create ions and the forces that destroy them.
On the side of the ions, the three most powerful allies are: the constant bombardment of the atmosphere by cosmic rays from outer space, the radiation from the sun, and the work of radioactive materials, such as radium, on and below the surface of the earth.
Streaming from the sun are large quantities of exceedingly fine, electrically charged particles. Some scientists call this moving mass solar smoke. As this stream of charged particles approaches us, it comes under the influence of the earth’s magnetic field, and divides into two streams that diverge toward the two magnetic poles. Reaching the outer atmosphere of the polar regions, the particles often collide with the molecules of the air and become discharged, thus producing the beautiful display known as the aurora. The discharged particles, remaining suspended in the upper air, serve as the nuclei for the formation of the high, feathery cirrus clouds.
Waterfalls are also ion factories. Niagara, for instance, charges its water with positive, and the air around the chasm with negative electricity. Splashing water and spray create ions, too. A curious fact in this connection is that salt water spray charges the air around it with positive ions while fresh water charges it with negative ions. Large raindrops become positively charged when they are flattened and broken up by the resistance of the air. In the very highest clouds, other ions are believed to be formed by photo-electric activity among the ice needles. Near the ground, the number of ions is augmented by winds that blow over metals and other surfaces.
Recently, such electricity-bearing winds have been studied by S. D. Flora, State Meterorologist of Kansas. During dry seasons, he found, they cause severe damage to wheat and other grains, leaving long brown streaks across the fields.
But the greatest single factor in the war for the production of ions is the radioactive materials in the earth. They account for about one half of the ionization of the air. Such matter is widely distributed, producing ions in the pores of the earth from which they are withdrawn by the soil’s respiration.
AGAINST these forces are arrayed two great enemies that continually consume or destroy the ions thus formed. One is a recombination of positive and negative ions into atoms or molecules. The other is the attachment of the ions to metal or liquid surfaces, that hold them as flies are held on sticky fly paper.
The outcome of this cosmic battle has greater personal significance than, until recently, we suspected. The latest tests have shown that the state of our health and spirits is closely linked to electricity in the air. Some mornings, for example, we get up feeling exhilirated; other mornings we get up feeling depressed. The difference, say experts in atmospheric electricity, is largely a difference of ions in the air.
As this is written, a ten-room house in Schenectady, N. Y., is the scene of an experiment that may have far-reaching consequences. General Electric engineers are testing a new type of air-conditioning apparatus that controls the elecricity in the air as well as the temperature and humidity. Special mechanisms, designed by Dr. Lewis R. Koller of the General Electric Research Laboratory, count and govern the number of electrified particles in the air while careful records show the effect upon the occupants of the laboratory-home.
The outcome of these experiments may throw light upon a puzzle that baffled eastern ventilating engineers not long ago. After a school was equipped with elaborate apparatus that washed, warmed, and humidified the air, the pupils contracted more colds than before! The answer to the riddle, some experts suggest, may lie in a difference in electrical particles in the air.
That such a difference does affect the human system has been proved definitely by a series of fascinating experiments carried on by Prof. F. Dessauer, of the University of Frankfort, Germany.
Among the Alps of Switzerland, a curious thing has been noticed. On certain peaks, mountain sickness, causing fever, headaches, and nausea which lasted for days, was common. On other peaks, equally high, it was rare. The only difference that scientists could discover in the two locations was in the amount of electricity in the atmosphere.
THIS started Dessauer on his study of the effect of atmospheric electricity upon the human body. He designed a curious ion incubator that would fill a room or a container with air that carried any given quantity of electrified particles. Whether these ions were positive or negative, he found, made all the difference in the world.
Positive ions, the researches demonstrated, produce fatigue, dizziness, headaches, a roaring in the ears, and sometimes nausea. Negative ions, on the other hand, produce a feeling of exhilaration.
Prof. Dessauer has applied these findings to the treatment of various diseases with remarkable success. He reports it has proved effective in asthma, rheumatism, high blood pressure, bronchitis, and arterial trouble.
In a study of 200 cases of high blood pressure, the records show eighty percent of the patients benefited from inhaling ionized air, the treatment extending over a period of several weeks. In cases of rheumatism, the electrified-air treatment was also followed by definite improvement.
Incidentally, the studies revealed a scientific basis for the twinges of rheumatic pain which foretell the coming of a storm. Just before a thunder shower, the scientist discovered, there is an unusual amount of positive electricity in the air near the ground.
Dessauer’s apparatus pours as many as 20,000,000 ions into a cubic centimeter of air, a concentration exceeding that found anywhere in nature. One of these ion generators, driving a current of air over a block of heated magnesium oxide encircled by a metal collar charged with a 6,000-volt current, has been installed in the Beth Israel Hospital, in New York City. Under the direction of Dr. William Bierman, Head of the Department of Physical Therapy, promising results have been obtained. Another Dessauer apparatus is in use at the University of Wisconsin, at Madison.
At Harvard University, Dr. C. P. Yaglou, of the School of Public Health, has been carrying on a series of researches along the same line. He has found that in summer, negative ions have a cooling effect upon the body. He has also run across a scientific puzzle that has not yet been solved.
IN AN empty room, he found, the ion content is about the same as that out-of-doors. But the moment people enter the room, the count drops and remains at a lower level until they leave, when it climbs back to its former position. This cannot be accounted for by saying the ions are absorbed in breathing because the amount of air taken into the lungs is small in proportion to that contained in the room.
Where do the ions go? What makes them disappear and what makes them come back? Students of electricity are seeking the answers.
The further science plumbs this mystery, the closer is the link it finds between life and elecricity. The famous Cleveland, O., surgeon, Dr. George W. Crile, sums up his discoveries in the words: “Electricity keeps the flame of life burning in the cell.” Dr. Charles H. Mayo, one of the noted surgical brothers of Rochester, Minn., adds that minute electrical charges are vital to the functioning of the brain. Dr. J. N. Washburne, of Syracuse University, N. Y., recently told a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that recent researches have led him to believe that learning is a process of arranging into different patterns the ions that are found in the nerve fibers of the brain.
From Russia comes news of a sensational application of ions to the work of food production. The Soviet government has awarded a $5,000 bonus to the Moscow scientist, Dr. M. Chizevitsky, for his discovery that ions can be employed to stimulate the growing of poultry. He found that when negative ions were added to the air in the coops, the poultry showed remarkable progress, rapidly increasing in weight, strength, and agility. The experiments were carried on with 1,000 chickens. As a result, ionized air is being applied to experiments with larger farm animals, a special laboratory having been turned over to the scientist by the government.
Plants, as well as animals, other tests have shown, respond to electricity acting in the air. When the Italian scientist, Dr. M. Mezadroli, carried on his experiments with high-frequency electric waves at Bologna, he found that onions subjected to the wave for thirty minutes a day matured fully ten days ahead of normal. Seeds, bombarded by the electric waves, often showed altered characteristics of heredity when they sprouted. In other tests, this scientist found that he could speed up the activity of silk-worms by placing them in the path of two-meter radio waves.
As scientists feel their way into this mysterious realm of high-frequency waves, they are meeting unexpected and bizarre experiences. At the General Electric laboratory, when Dr. Willis R. Whitney carried on recent experiments, he saw mice lose their tails and hibernating flies revive under the magic power of the short waves.
THE mouse was subjected to increasingly high-field intensities, which caused its body temperature to rise. In the end, without any apparent discomfort to the rodent, its tail shriveled up and dropped away! In another test, fruit flies hibernated in a glass tube when zero blasts passed over it. Then, with the freezing air still blowing over them, they were brought to activity simply by turning on the short radio waves. These warmed them internally. They had become their own heating stoves and were comfortable in spite of the intense cold around them!
Such revelations have made people wonder what effect the constant bombardment of radio waves will have on the human system. What will it do to us seventy years hence? Only within the past dozen years, have high-frequency sets been in operation. Now the trend is definitely toward short-wave transmission. Such electric waves, most potent of all in their effect upon muscles, nerves, and brains, are rapidly increasing in number. Sensational predictions have been made but as yet the evidence in their support is inconclusive.
Imagine cracking an egg on a plate and leaving it in the open air for a month without having it spoil or develop the least odor! That is the feat reported from Soest, Holland, where the scientist, Robert Pape, has been experimenting with the electric presentation of foodstuffs. The perishable produce is placed in an electromagnetic field. Applied in a certain manner, the Dutch worker reports, this is effective in preventing decay.
ANOTHER extraordinary bit of research, in which eggs played a part, is still puzzling the scientists. At the Ontario College of Education, in Canada, research workers prepared specially wired incubators in which the eggs were placed in different positions between negatively and positively charged plates. These eggs hatched in curious fashion. A control group, which has not been subjected to the electrical influence, hatched first. Thirty-six hours later, the eggs which had been placed at right angles to the plates broke open and fully five days late came those which were laid parallel to the plates. Why did the difference in position of the eggs in relation to the electric plates delay the hatching? Nobody knows. The scientists are trying to find out.
Passing over the earth, unfelt except by delicate instruments, are lines of magnetic force flowing between the north magnetic pole, located far inland on the edge of the polar ocean, and the south magnetic pole, lying a thousand miles north of the South Pole on the high, ice-covered plateau at the lower hub of the Earth. These lines of force, running through the air and in the ground, shift according to little-understood laws. For twenty years, the Carnegie, a ship without a nail or bit of steel on board, sailed the seas gathering data on these magnetic lines, a phenomenon closely linked to electricity in the air. In 1929, this vessel, the only one of its kind, was destroyed in a gasoline explosion in western Samoa.
It is now known that magnetism, electricity, volcanoes, and earthquakes are linked in some mysterious way. When a volcano erupts, for instance, compass needles which are far out of range of the earth vibrations are shaken with magnetic tremors. Again after an eruption, when the lava is cooling, it becomes magnetized either positively or negatively according to the direction of the earth’s magnetic field at the time. By studying old lava beds, Dr. A. J. Fleming, of the Carnegie Institution, suggests, scientists may be able to learn new facts about the magnetic history of the earth.
THE latest method of forecasting earthquakes, which is being tried in Chile where small quakes occur almost weekly, employs disturbances in the earth’s magnetism as a sign of an approaching tremor. At the Salto Weather Observatory, in that country, it was noted that severe quakes were always preceded by magnetic storms in the region. Sensitive instruments at the observatory now register minute-to-minute variations in terrestrial magnetism and, on these records, earthquake predictions are being broadcast with the regular weather reports.
In the eastern part of the United States, one of the most curious uses of electricity in the air was recently reported. Mushroom growers found that after an electrical storm the fungi grew most rapidly. Ozone in the air, a product of lightning flashes, was believed to be the cause. So now, when they want to hurry their crops for market, they turn on machines which discharge static electricity into the air and produce conditions similar to those that follow lightning.
That lightning may descend from the heavens to the earth along a path prepared by cosmic rays is the suggestion of John Thadberg, a Stockholm, Sweden, physicist. According to his theory, which was recently presented in a British scientific journal, the rays ionize the air along the irregular path, the electrified particles acting as ferry-boats to carry the bolt across the gap.
Such flashes from the sky add some 100,-000,000 tons of nitrogen to the soil each year, K. B. McEachron, lightning engineer of the General Electric Company, estimates. In passing through the air, which is approximately four-fifths nitrogen, the discharges fix in the ground large quantities of this chemical so vital to plant growth.
FOR a number of years, science has received skeptically tales of lightning that rolled out of the sky in balls. A few weeks ago, however, two scientists in Nebraska not only witnessed such a display but obtained excellent photographs of it. They are Prof. J. C. Jensen, of Nebraska Wesleyan University, Lincoln, and George Raveling, U. S. Weather Bureau observer in the same state. Both saw the ball lightning during violent storms that were almost tornadoes. According to Raveling’s description, a fiery stream poured from the sides of a boiling, dust-laden cloud, like water pouring from a sieve, breaking into spheres of irregular shape as it descended.
In its various forms, electricity, drifting or working in the air around us, is rapidly assuming a more important place in science’s picture of nature. Spectacular advances have been made recently in its study. It still remains, however, a realm of infinite possibilities and many mysteries.