Excerpt from Thunderstruck by Erik Larson, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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by Erik Larson

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    Oct 2006, 480 pages
    Sep 2007, 480 pages

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Within a few years of his joining the SPR, however, events challenged Lodge’s ability to maintain his scientific remove. In Boston William James began hearing from his own family about a certain “Mrs. Piper”—Lenore Piper—a medium who was gaining notoriety for possessing strange powers. Intending to expose her as a fraud, James arranged a sitting and found himself enthralled. He suggested that the society invite Mrs. Piper to England for a series of experiments. She and her two daughters sailed to Liverpool in November 1889 and then traveled to Cambridge, where a sequence of sittings took place under the close observation of SPR members. Lodge arranged a sitting of his own and suddenly found himself listening to his dead aunt Anne, a beloved woman of lively intellect who had abetted his drive to become a scientist against the wishes of his father. She once had told Lodge that after her death she would come back to visit if she could, and now, in a voice he remembered, she reminded him of that promise. “This,” he wrote, “was an unusual thing to happen.”

To Lodge, the encounter seemed proof that some part of the human mind persisted even after death. It left him, he wrote, “thoroughly convinced not only of human survival, but of the power to communicate, under certain conditions, with those left behind on the earth.”

Partly because of his diverse interests and his delight in new discoveries, by June 1894 he had become one of the Royal Institution’s most popular speakers.

The evening’s lecture was entitled “The Work of Hertz.” Heinrich Hertz had died earlier in the year, and the institution invited Lodge to talk about his experiments, a task to which Lodge readily assented. Lodge had a deep respect for Hertz; he also believed that if not for his own fatal propensity for distraction, he might have beaten Hertz to the history books. In his memoir, Lodge stopped just short of claiming that he himself not Hertz, was first to prove the existence of electromagnetic waves. And indeed Lodge had come close, but instead of pursuing certain tantalizing findings, he had dropped the work and buried his results in a quotidian paper on lightning conductors.

Every seat in the lecture hall was filled. Lodge spoke for a few  moments, then began his demonstration. He set off a spark. The gun- shot crack jolted the audience to full attention. Still more startling was  the fact that this spark caused a reaction—a flash of light—in a distant, unattached electrical apparatus. The central component of this apparatus was a device Lodge had designed, which he called a “coherer,” a tube filled with minute metal filings, and which he had inserted into a conventional electric circuit. Initially the filings had no power to conduct electricity,  but when Lodge generated the spark and thus launched electromag- netic waves into the hall, the filings suddenly became conductors—they “cohered”—and allowed current to flow. By tapping the tube with his finger, Lodge returned the filings to their nonconductive state, and the circuit went dead.

Though seemingly a simple thing, in fact the audience had never seen anything like it: Lodge had harnessed invisible energy, Hertz’s waves, to cause a reaction in a remote device, without intervening wires. The applause came like thunder.

Afterward Lord Rayleigh, a distinguished mathematician and physicist and secretary of the Royal Society, came up to Lodge to congratulate him. He knew of Lodge’s tendency toward distraction. What Lodge had just demonstrated seemed a path that even he might find worthy of focus. “Well, now you can go ahead,” Rayleigh told Lodge. “There is your life work!”

But Lodge did not take Lord Rayleigh’s advice. Instead, once again exhibiting his inability to pursue one theme of research to conclusion, he left for a vacation in Europe that included a scientific foray into a very different realm. He traveled to the Ile Roubaud, a small island in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of France, where soon very strange things began to happen and he found himself distracted anew, at what would prove to be a critical moment in his career and in the history of science.

Excerpted from Thunderstruck by Erik Larson, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Devil in the White City Copyright © 2006 by Erik Larson. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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