Correcting my limitless lack of knowledge, one post at a time.
Sunday, February 20, 2011
Have you been galvanized yet?
In the (not so new) episode of Breaking Bad I watched the other night, galvanization proved key to the story line. It had something to do with using galvanized metal, which apparently included coins. The word has also recently gained (pardon the pun) currency, reflecting, I think, something that's abroad in our times. A headline reads "Egypt protesters galvanized". Obama uses the word in a speech. A friend says to me last night "It's good to be galvanized." How often do people say that? And is being galvanized a good thing?
I think I know the rough meaning of the second kind of galvanized. It would be something like, strengthened, charged up, fortified. But what does the original word mean and where does it come from?
Well, it doesn't look to me like those galvanized Egytian protesters actually underwent a process similar to that used to galvanize coins. Galvanization is, or was, an electrochemical process. In our current lingo, it usually means a process in which a thin layer of metal is added to another in order, usually, to prevent rusting. Apparently, metals which sit next to each other don't like each other, or, perhaps like each other a little too well. Galvanic corrosion can occur, with ions jumping back and forth and god knows what all else. Think it doesn't affect you? That's what the Statue of Liberty said. Iron and copper are apparently a 'galvanic couple', which simply means one acts upon the other. Though Gustave Eiffel (you'll know his tower) and others had anticipated this problem, the shellac meant to keep these two apart within Lady Liberty eroded over time and a giant renovation project helped our torchbearer in the 1980s. These days, it's more common for galvanization to be done by 'hot-dipping' the thing you want protected in a bath of molten zinc, but the original process used an electric current passing through a conductive bath, which caused the zinc to form a thin protective layer on the steel or iron object that would otherwise be subject to rust.
I don't know why the British Royal Navy crops up so frequently on this blog. True, my mom was in the navy, but we're Americans. Nevertheless, another example of galvanic corrosion comes from the days when Samuel Pepys was admiralty secretary. No one could figure out why bolt-heads and the like were mysteriously disintegrating. Pepys allowed the lead sheath of the ship H.M.S. Alarm (always the evocative names, these British ships) to be taken off, and replaced with copper. But the copper did not prevent the same effect from happening to the majority of the nails holding the sheath to the wooden hull, though some did. In the Case of the Mysterious Non-Corroding Nailheads, it turned out that some of the nails had never been unwrapped from the paper they came in on, and this protective layer prevented corrosion. The moral? Sometimes, laziness pays off.
But back to those galvanized Egyptians. And apparently, Wisconsinites. These people were not galvanized like coins or naval ships or symbols of liberty. They were galvanized like dead frogs. That's not an insult. Galvanize, when used about people, means "to shock into action, to stir". Luigi Galvani managed to stimulate dead frog's nerve cells to the point where they still twitched. It's maybe not the most flattering portrait of a galvanized electorate--or potential electorate--but in a pinch, it will do.
Galvani was on the losing side of a big debate going on in his times. As a vitalist, he believed that life could not be reduced to mere bio-chemical reactions, and was apparently trounced by his peer and opponent, Alessandro Volte. (You've heard of a volt, right?) Volte thought that everything could be explained without reference to a life principle. It was in response to Galvani's assertions that Volte developed the voltaic pile, which was the first battery.
I am no stranger to vitalism, as it happens. One of the leaders of a discussion group I've been attending for many years, the Penny University, has strong vitalist leanings. Vitalism, as I've come to understand it, is kind of the underground, back alley view of science. It's a renegade. It hangs out with many other suspect practices, like herbalism, midwifery, and probably drumming. It is so outcast that I was hardpressed to find a positive piece on vitalism today. But then I remembered that one of the leaders of the Penny might have written about it himself. And sure enough, I found it here.
Galvani was wrong about why the frog's leg moved. His friend and rival Volte still named his battery after him, he got a mention in a rather famous novel by one Mary Shelley, and he's even got a crater on the moon. Sometimes it pays to be wrong.