Power up

You could say that May 16 can be an electrifying day in history. Or at least a very energetic one. On this day in 1888, Nikola Tesla described what equipment would be needed to transmit alternating current over long distances. Remember, at this time, he was engaged in the “War of the Currents” with that douche, Edison, who was a backer of DC. The only problem with DC (the kind of energy you get out of batteries) is that you need retransmission stations every mile or so. With Tesla’s version, you can send that power a long way down the wires before it needs any bump up in energy.

Of course, it might help to understand in the first place what electric charge is. Here’s Nick Lucid from Science Asylum to explain:

But if you think that electric current flows through a wire like water flows through a pipe, you’re wrong, and there’s a really interesting and big difference between the one and the other, as well as between AC and DC current. DC, meaning “direct current,” only “flows” in one direction, from higher to lower energy states. This is why it drains your batteries, actually — all of the energy potential contained therein sails along its merry way, powers your device, and then dumps off in the lower energy part of the battery, where it isn’t inclined to move again.

A simplification, to be sure, but the point is that any direct current, by definition, loses energy as it moves. Although here’s the funny thing about it, which Nick explains in this next video: neither current moves through that wire like it would in a pipe.

Although the energy in direct current moves from point A to point B at the speed of light, the actual electrons wrapped up in the electromagnetic field do not, and their progress is actually rather slow. If you think about it for a minute, this makes sense. Since your battery is drained when all of the negatively charged electrons move down to their low energy state, if they all moved at the speed of light, your battery would drain in nanoseconds. Rather, it’s the field that moves, while the electrons take their own sweet time moving down the crowded center of the wire — although move they do. It just takes them a lot of time because they’re bouncing around chaotically.

As for alternating current, since its thing is to let the field oscillate back and forth from source to destination, it doesn’t lose energy, but it also keeps its electrons on edge, literally, and they tend to sneak down the inside edges of the wire. However, since they’re just as likely to be on any edge around those 360 degrees, they have an equally slow trip. Even more so, what’s really guiding them isn’t so much their own momentum forward as it is the combination of electricity and magnetism. In AC, it’s a dance between the electric field in the wire and the magnetic field outside of it, which is exactly why the current seems to wind up in a standing wave between points A and B without losing energy.

I think you’re ready for part three:

By the way, as mentioned in that last video, Ben Franklin blew it when he defined positive and negative, but science blew it in not changing the nomenclature, so that the particle that carries electrical charge, the electron, is “negative,” while we think of energy as flowing from the positive terminal of batteries.

It doesn’t. It flows backwards into the “positive” terminals, but that’s never going to get fixed, is it?

But all of that was a long-winded intro to what the Germans did on this same day three years later, in 1891. It was the International Electrotechnical Exhibition, and they proved Edison dead wrong about which form of energy transmission was more efficient and safer. Not only did they use magnetism to create and sustain the energy flow, they used Tesla’s idea of three-phase electric power, and if you’ve got outlets at home with those three prongs, frequently in an unintended smiley face arrangement, then you know all about it.

Eleven years later, Edison would film the electrocution of an elephant in order to “prove” the danger of AC, but he was fighting a losing battle by that point. Plus, he was a colossal douche.

Obviously, the power of AC gave us nationwide electricity, but it also powered our earliest telegraph systems, in effect the great-grandparent of the internet. Later on, things sort of went hybrid, with the external power for landlines coming from AC power, but that getting stepped down and converted to operate the internal electronics via DC.

In fact, that’s the only reason that Edison’s version wound up sticking around: the rise of electronics, transistors, microchips, and so on. Powering cities and neighborhoods and so on requires the oomph of AC, but dealing with microcircuits requires the “directionality” of DC.

It does make sense though, if we go back to the water through a house analogy, wrong as it is. Computer logic runs on transistors, which are essentially one-way logic gates — input, input, compare, output. This is where computers and electricity really link up nicely. Computers work in binary: 1 or 0; on or off. So does electricity. 1 or 0; positive voltage, no voltage. Alternating current is just going to give you a fog of constant overlapping 1s and 0s. Direct current can be either, or. And that’s why computers manage to convert one to the other before the power gets to any of the logic circuits.

There’s one other really interesting power-related connection to today, and it’s this: on May 16, 1960, Theodore Maiman fired up the first optical LASER in Malibu, California, which he is credited with creating. Now… what does this have to do with everything before it? Well… everything.

LASER, which should only properly ever be spelled like that, is an acronym for the expression Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.

But that’s it. It was basically applying the fundamentals of electromagnetism (see above) to electrons and photons. The optical version of electrical amplification, really. But here’s the interesting thing about it. Once science got a handle on how LASERs worked, they realized that they could use to send the same information that they could via electricity.

So… all those telegraphs and telephone calls that used to get shot down copper wires over great distances in analog form? Yeah, well… here was a media that could do it through much cheaper things called fiber optics, transmit the same data much more quickly, and do it with little energy loss over the same distances.

And, ironically, it really involved the same dance of particles that Tesla realized in figuring out how AC worked way back in the day, nearly a century before that first LASER.

All of these innovations popped up on the same day, May 16, in 1888, 1891, and 1960. I think we’re a bit overdue for the next big breakthrough to happen on this day. See you in 2020?

What is your favorite science innovation involving energy? Tell us in the comments!

Icons passing

One sure sign of incredible talent is becoming a cultural icon. What defines a cultural icon? Somebody who is famous for generations after they’ve actually done their final work. One of the major examples in the Western World is, of course, William Shakespeare. You know his name. You know his plays. All of this even though he died 408 years ago, which is 287 years before anyone now living was born. Yes, you read both of those numbers correctly.

Closer to home, though, there are names of people I can mention who did their final work and/or died long ago that are still known to all current living generations, right down to Millennials, and probably even Gen-Z: Jimi Hendrix. Jim Morrison. Marilyn Monroe. James Dean. The Marx Brothers. Charlie Chaplin. Buster Keaton. I mean, just the fact that every one of those links goes to an official site for the named person should tell you a lot, considering that they all died before the internet was officially born.

It can go back even further — Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante, Aeschylus. And if you throw in political leaders like presidents and monarchs and emperors, the list gets really long. In your own lives, it includes your parents and grandparents and, if you’re lucky, maybe even at least a great-grand round, if not great-great.

So when we lose true icons during our own lifetimes, they become a matter of mass mourning across generations, and we lost two of them this week. I’m referring, of course, to Doris Day and Tim Conway. It’s a perfect example of how humans are naturally drawn to contrasts — it is far more tragic when comedic actors pass away.

It’s also very telling that their deaths blew up social media.

I saw posts from people of all generations about both of them, even though Day was 97 and Conway was 85. She made her last two films in 1968, then went on to focus on animal welfare, only coming back to do a brief TV talk show in the 1980s, most notable for her interview of previous co-star and good friend Rock Hudson, who was visibly emaciated due to AIDS. He would die because of it a year later — the first high-profile public figure to be outed in this manner. Ironically (because he’d always been closeted until then), this was a big impetus for the whole gay rights AIDS treatment/ACT UP movements. Doris stuck by him through it all and all the way to the end, which says a lot about her character. This also made her a gay icon, more on which below.

Her film career and music career almost completely overlap — 1948 to 1968 for the former, and 1945 to 1967 for the latter.

As for Conway, although he kept working into this century, after doing one episode of 30 Rock in 2008, he only made two more appearances in 2013 and 2015 on TNT and the Hallmark Channel. Arguably, though, he is probably most well-known for his role in The Carol Burnett Show from 1975 until it ended in 1978 — kind of surprising, really, since the show actually ran for eleven seasons, beginning in 1967, and yet he is mainly associated with it. The big reason that Conway became iconic for those three years is because the show was syndicated and, like I Love Lucy, has been rerun almost continuously since it went off the air.

There’s another icon for you. Lucille Ball. When Gillian Anderson popped up playing her in American Gods, you didn’t need any explanation no matter how young you are. See how that works?

For me, I first saw a lot of those classic Doris Day films in the 80s and 90s thanks to the miracle of video rental. And, by that point, since we all knew that Hudson was gay and he was dead, it made those rom-coms they made together in the 50s and 60s all the more… interesting. She always had this reputation as being virginal and he’d always had the reputation of being homosexual, so they were sort of the perfect couple. Toss in Tony Randall — who was the prissiest straight man on the planet — and it became really entertaining high camp.

There’s a reason that Doris became a gay icon, at least in WeHo in the 80s and 90s, and a lot of that had to do with a place called Video West — sadly, another victim of the internet and streaming. They had all of her movies, and I think they might have even had a Doris Day section, so the old queens who ran the place passed the torch to us twinks who were renting.

And so on.

But she also became an icon to everyone else for very similar reasons. She did the right thing when it was necessary, and she made some really entertaining films over the course of only twenty years. Imagine that for a second. Her film career was only about one fifth of her life.

As for Conway, as I mentioned above, he  actually benefited from the internet, because so many of his clips from The Carol Burnett Show wound up online thanks to that show being replayed constantly, and a YouTube search for “Tim Conway Carol Burnett” will turn up a treasure trove of clips. (Currently, of course, it will also result in a lot of news stories lamenting his passing, but that’s just how it works.)

One thing I loved about Tim was that he could make anyone else on stage with him crack in a heartbeat while keeping a straight face, and one of the most famous moments in which he did that is his “Elephant Story” from a “Mama’s Family” sketch on The Carol Burnett Show. Here it is:

If this one doesn’t make you fall on the floor laughing, you have no soul. He’s clearly making it up on the fly, so he’s an improviser after my own heart, but the more sincerely he does it, the harder he makes it for everyone else not to just lose it. This is comedic brilliance, it is why Mr. Tim Conway is an icon, now and forever, even if you were born two or three decades after he last appeared on Carol’s show. (And Vicki Lawrence is no slouch for having added the button to the scene that kills everyone.)

As for Doris, let me leave you with this — one of her most famous songs in a famous Hitchcock film, Que Será Será from his second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

By the way, she really nails the Spanish pronunciation, too. In context, she’s singing the song in order to send a signal to her kidnapped son that Mom and Dad are here, which makes the lyrics even more meaningful near the end. This is basically a woman with a metaphorical gun held to her head trying to put on a brave face, and Doris nailed it.

So there you go. There are reasons that people become icons, and Doris and Tim definitely earned that status. The Earth is a sadder place for them having left it, but we are fortunate that what they left behind is so damn wonderful. Search them up, watch their stuff, and enjoy. They’d like that.

Who are your favorite icons who died long before you were born? Share in the comments!