We Are Electric

Inside the 200-Year Hunt for Our Body's Bioelectric Code, and What the Future Holds


By Sally Adee

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Science journalist Sally Adee breaks open the field of bioelectricity—the electric currents that run through our bodies and every living thing—its misunderstood history, and why new discoveries will lead to new ways around antibiotic resistance, cleared arteries, and new ways to combat cancer.

You may be familiar with the idea of our body's biome: the bacterial fauna that populate our gut and can so profoundly affect our health. In We Are Electric we cross into new scientific understanding: discovering your body's electrome.

Every cell in our bodies—bones, skin, nerves, muscle—has a voltage, like a tiny battery. It is the reason our brain can send signals to the rest of our body, how we develop in the womb, and why our body knows to heal itself from injury. When bioelectricity goes awry, illness, deformity, and cancer can result. But if we can control or correct this bioelectricity, the implications for our health are remarkable: an undo switch for cancer that could flip malignant cells back into healthy ones; the ability to regenerate cells, organs, even limbs; to slow aging and so much more. The next scientific frontier might be decrypting the bioelectric code, much the way we did the genetic code.

Yet the field is still emerging from two centuries of skepticism and entanglement with medical quackery, all stemming from an 18th-century scientific war about the nature of electricity between Luigi Galvani (father of bioelectricity, famous for shocking frogs) and Alessandro Volta (inventor of the battery).

In We Are Electric, award-winning science writer Sally Adee takes readers through the thrilling history of bioelectricity and into the future: from the Victorian medical charlatans claiming to use electricity to cure everything from paralysis to diarrhea, to the advances helped along by the giant axons of squids, and finally to the brain implants and electric drugs that await us—and the moral implications therein. 

The bioelectric revolution starts here.



Bioelectricity in the Beginning

“Consider: the hero endures; even his downfall merely foretells his eventual rebirth.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, “First Elegy”

Normally, it’s difficult to muddle together a coherent story out of all the complex mixtures of culture and history that go into making something the way it is today. But in the case of the confusion about bioelectricity, there’s an identifiable chain of causality: a savage battle that helped split science into the constituent disciplines we see today, pitting biologists and physicists against one another in a death match that ultimately determined who gained custody of electricity. Biology lost, physics won, and the consequences would ripple through the next 200 years of science. This original schism profoundly shaped the way subsequent generations of scientists approached the idea of electricity in biology.


Artificial vs. Animal: Galvani, Volta, and the battle for electricity

Alessandro Volta was astonished. In his hands he held an early print of a manuscript whose author claimed to have solved an ancient mystery: what is the substance that courses through all living things, underpinning their every move and intention?

The answer: electricity.

Volta—a compactly built striver, prone to high, flamboyant collars, whose encroachment of thick black hair was engaged in furious battle with his forehead—felt himself uniquely qualified to evaluate this author’s claims. A little over a decade earlier, in 1779, he had been elevated to Chair of Experimental Physics at the University of Pavia, after devising a new tool that dispensed a ready supply of static shocks. It had seen wide adoption by other scientists (and foreshadowed the device that would later cement his name in history), but their smattering of weak plaudits wasn’t enough. Volta wanted more acclaim. He deserved more acclaim. He had climbed the ranks, toured the most important scientific centers, and built himself an influential social network of patrons comprised not just of scientists, but politicians and others in the top strata of Italian society. He was on the cusp of establishing himself as one of the global authorities on the controversial, wildly glamorous, and brand-new study of the mysterious phenomenon of electricity.

Electricity was—is—a force of nature, whose mysteries were then just beginning to yield to scientific inquiry. No one understood very much at all about this invisible fluid. It shocked people, it sometimes killed them from the sky, and it was still very much a matter of debate whether it was the same stuff electric fish used to stun their prey. Electricity was also just then in the process of emerging out of the realm of party tricks and ludicrous speculation (a standard-issue claim was that men with strong electricity could produce sparks during sexual intercourse). The first rudimentary tools had only recently been developed to contain this wild stuff for serious scientific investigation and experimentation. Their inventors were eighteenth-century science’s version of rock stars. Volta was among them, and had acquired a reputation as a rising star among the scientists who were decoding the mysteries of electricity into empirical truths. Some of his fellow physicists were even starting to refer to him as the “Newton of electricity.”1

But now this author, the anatomist Luigi Galvani, claimed to have found a biological variant.

Galvani was an uptight bumpkin from an Italian state that had only recently begun to acquire the equipment to bring it up to speed with the current century. A pious obstetrician whose manuscript was full of unsophisticated terminology. This person claimed superior knowledge of the stuff that had confounded the smartest men in philosophy and science?

You can sense in the manuscript that Galvani knew the magnitude of the claim he was staking. “We could never suppose that fortune were to be so friendly to me, such as to allow us to be perhaps the first in handling, as it were, the electricity concealed in nerves,” he wrote in the preface, with a trepidation that bordered on foreshadowing.2 Indeed, the claim would eventually rain down ruin.

How could Galvani’s claim—that the body is animated by a kind of electricity—have been so controversial? To understand why Volta became so incensed, we need to understand how far biology lagged behind physics in the late 1700s.

The scientific revolution in Europe had upended scientists’ understanding of the physical world by tearing down received wisdom and replacing it with testable laws and predictive equations. Copernicus and Galileo plucked our planet from the center of creation and set it into an unremarkable corner of the cosmos. Kepler discovered the laws governing how the planets moved around the newly central sun. And from these, Newton deduced the law of gravity, and extrapolated how things fall down to Earth.

Biology, on the other hand, discovered few new insights of this magnitude.3 A promising century ended in an impasse for the study of living things. Microscopes allowed physiologists to examine the minutiae of bacteria, blood cells, and yeast. Anatomists developed detailed maps of the nerves that infiltrated every extremity of the body. It was even understood that these nerves were closely involved in our ability to move our limbs. But how? In the late 1700s, scientists still knew next to nothing about the mechanism that allowed humans to walk and talk and wiggle their fingers and toes, to feel or scratch an itch. How did the immaterial soul direct the motions of the animal machine? No one had the faintest idea.

To say the seventeenth-century understanding of this phenomenon was stuck in the dark ages would be an understatement. It had become stuck much earlier than that—with Claudius Galen, a brilliant physician and philosopher influential in second-century Rome.4 He kicked off 1,500 years’ worth of philosophical musings about what was flowing through our bodies to make us think and move.

Galen’s conjectures were aggregated from centuries of Aristotelian thought and refined with the help of a host of dissected cadavers. Nerves, he concluded, are hollow tubes that send man’s will by way of ethereal substances called pneuma psychikon—“animal spirits”—to be executed in his limbs and muscles; and that is “animal” not in the zoological sense, but in the sense of anima, the Latin translation of psyche, the Greek word for vitality. These spirits, Galen proposed, are produced in a complex series of interactions inside the body, starting in the liver, distilling in the heart, reacting with inhaled air, and finally being sent to a staging area in the brain.5 When motion was required, the brain would function like a hydraulic pump to deploy these animal spirits into the hollow nerves for distribution to all the body’s feeling and moving parts. When they flowed thus from brain to muscle, the spirits created contractions there. When they flowed in the opposite direction, they carried sensation.

Apart from increasingly baroque refinements, this dogma remained largely unchallenged for at least the next 1,300 years. Any theoretical advances in the field came to depend not on experimental probes, but on philosophical reasoning. For example, in the mid-1600s, René Descartes—the progenitor of mind–body dualism—conjectured that instead of “fire air” the constitution of animal spirits was probably closer to a liquid, like water driving machinery. Medical scientists didn’t fare much better. The Sicilian physiologist and physicist Alfonso Borelli proposed that rather than being watery, animal spirits were in fact a highly reactive alkaline “marrow”—in his parlance, Succus nerveus, or nerve juice—that squeezed out of the nerves at the slightest perturbation. When this juice reacted with the blood in the muscle, it would cause the surrounding tissue to boil.

These interpretations all ran into the same problem—with the invention of the microscope at the turn of the seventeenth century, it soon became abundantly clear that nerves could not be hollow. That meant there was no room for animal spirits or nerve juice to be the substances governing our limbs. But while these early microscopes were powerful enough to rule out tubes, they were still too weak to probe nerve structure more precisely. This left a crucial question unanswerable: how could anything be transported through a body without the help of tubes? New theories rushed in to fill the vacuum.

Lack of evidence opened the debate to all comers, from the sublimely credentialed to the sublimely questionable. Isaac Newton suggested that the brain’s messages traveled along the nerves by vibration, the way you might pluck a guitar string. At the other end of the spectrum was the conjecture of a spa physician in Bath (these were doctors who took up residence at spas, then at the height of their popularity in England, to prescribe exact drinking and bathing regimes—for a robust fee, of course): David Kinneir claimed in a 1738 tract that, as the animal spirits were carried in the blood, taking the waters at the spa would help to unblock the vessels that carried them.6

It’s worth noting that before the nineteenth century, science was a lot less fussy about its academic boundaries. There was less of a demand back then on the people who studied the natural world to squeeze themselves into rigid disciplines, largely because these didn’t yet exist. All that would come later. In fact, scientists weren’t even called scientists. People who studied the natural world referred to themselves as natural philosophers, or sometimes experimental philosophers. The ultimate archetype was Alexander von Humboldt, who traveled the world studying whatever took his fancy. Men like him, and Galvani, were free to investigate whatever piqued their interest, which could (and did) range from bone structure to comparative anatomy to electricity.

Especially poorly defined were the distinctions between the physical and life sciences. Cross-field mobility was the norm. Try to categorize people who studied biology in the eighteenth century and you’d be forced to include everyone from radical theologians to physicists. One thing was clear, though. Medics—who were charged with dispensing practical remedies—did not enjoy high status, owing to an increasing awareness of the gap between their scientific airs and their actual ability to treat the sick.

A new hope

By the 1800s, we knew little more about our bodies than we had a full millennium earlier. Meanwhile, the scientific revolution had taken the understanding of electricity from strength to strength.

Like animal spirits, electrical phenomena had been observed for centuries without generating great insight. The Ancient Greeks, for example, had noticed strange stones that seemed to pull metal to them as if by an invisible force. They had seen that when lightning struck people, it often killed them. Electric eels were known to deliver a fulsome shock to their prey. Then there was amber—the insect-trapping resin that also had a strange tendency to attract bits of dust and fluff, the same way the stones attracted metal. Give the amber a vigorous little rub, you might get a little zap and see a spark. But before the seventeenth century, all these observations had not been compiled into any kind of explanatory framework.

In fact, electricity got its name long before we understood how it was involved in any of the above. The word was coined in 1600 by William Gilbert, who—in keeping with what I mentioned earlier about the disciplines—identified as a physician, physicist, and natural philosopher. He borrowed from the Ancient Greek word elektron, for amber, owing to that material’s unique ability to reliably elicit the magic spark.

The scientific revolution vastly upgraded the tools to investigate the phenomenon. In 1672, Otto von Guericke invented the first device that made it possible for scientists to generate electricity themselves: an “electrostatic generator” was a glass globe you could rub with silk to accumulate a small amount of electrical charge. Touch it and you’d get a zap. (This, incidentally, is where we get the phrase “static electricity.” The globe trapped electricity on its surface so it wouldn’t go anywhere—it didn’t move. It was in stasis.) Electrostatic generators allowed the accumulated electricity to be dispelled in bigger jolts than amber, and that allowed people for the first time to decide how, when, and where to direct the jolts. More machines followed, some making it easier to charge the generator by having hand cranks, so your arms wouldn’t get tired from all that rubbing glass with silk. Bigger glass tubes yielded stronger jolts. The shock they generated was weak, but it was enough to start a century of parlor-game science, from the “kissing Venus”—an electrified woman whose kisses stung gentlemen’s lips with a trivial zap—to young boys charged up to attract bits of paper and other flotsam as if by magic.

But all of these generators had the same problem: the very act of touching these sources of accumulated static electricity released it all in one go (which is also what’s happened when touching your doorknob zaps you with a sharp spark of pain). There was no way to store up a large quantity of electricity for later use.

About a century after the first electrostatic generator, several scientists separately converged on the idea of a special jar that could siphon the mysterious invisible substance from a generator and store it for later. To avoid the thorny question of paternity, the new invention was dubbed the Leyden jar, an indirect credit to Pieter van Musschenbroek, who did a lot of the early work in this Dutch city. Scientists competed to see who could concentrate the most electricity in their jar, because of course they did, and this had exactly the unfortunate consequences you might expect. When van Musschenbroek stuffed his Leyden jar to capacity, rather like overpacking a suitcase, it promptly exploded on him. The shock was enough to send the temporarily paralyzed physicist to bed for two days.

As people got better at stuffing these increasingly capacious vessels to capacity, Leyden jar demonstrations grew progressively more dramatic, from a crowd of 200 monks connected by lengths of iron wire and shocked by a single Leyden jar, to a practical joke in which a specially designed wine glass was electrified for the amusement of picnic guests (less fun for its unfortunate target).7 Though high society loved these demonstrations, even they agreed that electricity was at best a novelty, and no one could quite deduce how this circus of wonders might prove useful… until the mid-1740s, when a Scottish electric showman called Dr. Spencer sent his apparatus to the Philadelphia residence of a young Benjamin Franklin.8

Franklin is often credited with single-handedly turning the carnival of electricity into a science. And while it is a bit more complicated than that, Franklin’s famous kite demonstration did begin the unification process that proved that different electrical phenomena—lightning, amber, electrostatic generators—were just different manifestations of the same ethereal substance.

Franklin—famous polymath and politician—was among the vanguard of investigators trying to develop a grand unified theory of electricity that would link “natural electricity” (lightning) to the stuff produced by generators and stuffed into Leyden jars (“artificial electricity”). He attached a key to a long string, suspended by a kite, during a lightning storm. If he could charge a Leyden jar with the proceeds of a lightning storm, his point would be proved. It was a stupendously dangerous experiment, but it worked so well that kids are still forced to read about it in school. Upshot: lightning was electricity.

Franklin’s experiment was hugely consequential and helped pave the way for a new understanding that was formalized into a branch of science, whose practitioners referred to themselves as electricians. (This word carried a rather more glamorous connotation back then—you can think of eighteenth-century electricians as the “rocket scientists” of their day.) What’s more, there was now an understanding of electricity as an invisible fluid that could be collected in a jar, cross vast distances, and travel along strings, hollow or not.

What else was electricity? By 1776, people had begun to wonder if this “immaterial fluid” wasn’t germane to those animal spirits everyone had been wondering about. That year, the notion got its first bit of supporting evidence when John Walsh experimented with an electric eel.

Walsh was a classic natural philosopher: colonel, MP in the House of Commons, all-round rich person. He moved in the same circles as Franklin, who was just starting to cultivate an obsession with electric fish. After their electrical organs had been described, Franklin became convinced that the shock the creature delivered was another manifestation of the phenomenon of electricity, so he convinced Walsh to “devote his scientific energies” (read: a boatload of his ample fortune) to devising experiments that would prove “fish electricity” was real.9

The way to do that was to put an electric fish into a dark room and get it to deliver its jolt—in the hope that doing so would yield a visible spark. That would be the smoking gun. Incredibly, it seems Walsh was able to do it. Several historical accounts by people deep in the audience at his 1776 demonstration reported this convincing evidence that electric eels were, in fact, electric. The British Evening Post reported “vivid flashes.”

While the experiment didn’t provide any direct evidence of a link between “fish electricity” and anything that might be involved in human processes, the idea was out there nonetheless: a form of electricity might be at work in the action of nerves and muscles. If an eel could make a spark, perhaps we could create our own internal sparks.

And that’s how electricity found Luigi Galvani.

The man who wanted to know God’s secret

Historians don’t know very much about Luigi Galvani’s family and youth. We do know that he was born in 1737 in the Papal State of Bologna, a wealthy and progressive state of Italy. According to the historian Marco Bresadola, Galvani was born into a merchant family; his father, Domenico, was a goldsmith on his fourth wife (Barbara) and second round of children by the time Luigi entered the world.10 The Galvanis had enough money to send more than one of their children to obtain a university education, which was not an inconsiderable expense. But having a scholar in the family was a mark of social standing and prestige for the merchant classes, so Domenico trotted his kids off to school.

Luigi was initially opposed to this fate. He was a dreamy child who preferred family life to Bolognese student antics. What he liked most was spending time in conversation with the monks at a monastery near Bologna, who were tasked with counseling the dying in their final hours.11 Galvani was fascinated by the insights the monks brought back from their time with people at the edge of life and death. There, Galvani also absorbed the values and ideals of the progressive Catholic Enlightenment, including the reigning Pope’s theories of “public happiness.” Instead of focusing on ritual and splendor, as many of his predecessors had, the progressive Benedict XIV tried to inspire his citizens’ devotion by actually improving their lives, which took the form of civil engineering projects like public drainage, but also improvements to the education system, including stocking universities with the latest tools, including electrical ones.12 He redefined faith as charitable action, not competitive superstition.

This philosophy resonated with the young Galvani, and when he was a teenager, he asked to join the order. However, his family convinced the monks to talk him out of it, eager to divert this obviously gifted child onto a more socially mobile track. So Galvani withdrew his inquiry and instead enrolled at the University of Bologna to study medicine and philosophy. (He also studied chemistry, physics, and surgery.) His father was right about his potential—Galvani would go on to write twenty theses just about the structure, development, and pathology of bones. After obtaining his doctorate, Galvani began to research and lecture in anatomy at the university. Though not a natural extrovert, he was a popular lecturer.13 He was one of the first professors to enliven his talks with experiments, and his enthusiasm was so infectious and his teachings so accessible that students from the neighboring arts academy often crowded into the room. Galvani was awarded a fast succession of academic positions and honors at the University of Bologna, and soon held a concurrent appointment with the Institute of Sciences of Bologna, one of the first modern experimental institutions in Europe.

But he would never quite lose sight of the road not taken—according to all accounts, he remained a devout Catholic to the end of his life. If he couldn’t devote himself to God in the monastery, he at least wanted to do it in the laboratory. He lived his principles as best he could, turning his work into an expression of his devotion. In addition to his post at the university, he became a practicing physician at the local hospital. He gave preferential treatment to people in extreme poverty—especially women. As an obstetrician, Galvani nurtured a deep, abiding obsession with creation. More than anything he wanted to understand the scientific underpinnings of how God had given humans the spark of life.

Galvani was in the ideal place, at the ideal time. Founded in 1088, not only was the University of Bologna the oldest university in Europe, it was also the most progressive and forward-thinking. For example, the university had recently promoted Laura Bassi, its first female lecturer in experimental physics. Bassi was a prodigy who taught Newtonian physics from her home laboratory and established ties with electricians all over the world, including Benjamin Franklin and Giambattista Beccaria, who were considered the leading electrical theorists of the time.14 This network ensured the university was at the vanguard of this important new phenomenon. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Galvani was in no way scandalized by women in authority or in the sciences writ large; while no one could attach the anachronistic label of feminist to him, he was impatient with the idea that it was “laughable” to take instruction from women. For example, he was nonchalant about his collaborations with the wax sculptor Anna Morandi, whose exquisite anatomical models he used to teach his anatomy class,15 even as some colleagues blanched at the idea that a woman might have anything to teach them.16 Untouched by such prejudices, Galvani attended many of Bassi’s lectures, and soon she and her husband, the medicine professor Giuseppe Veratti, became his mentors.

At the height of his influence, Giambattista Beccaria sent them his textbook, in which he—like Franklin—was beginning to outline his own grand unified theory of electricity. Beccaria cautiously explored the idea that perhaps natural electricity could be present in animals, having read John Walsh’s explosive new publication detailing the anatomy of electric fish. Bassi and Veratti began to encourage their protégés to zap animals with Leyden jars, offering up Bassi’s lab for electrical tests on the hearts, intestines, and nerves of frogs.

In Bassi’s lab, Galvani grew increasingly obsessed. He began conflating animal spirits with the electric fluid in his lectures. In one anatomy talk on causes of death, Galvani claimed it was rooted in the extinction of “that most noble electric fluid on which motion, sensation, blood circulation, life itself seemed to depend.”17

While many scholars were beginning to converge on this kind of interpretation, they tiptoed around the conclusion cautiously, loaded as it was with unscientific associations. The more practical problem was that there was no experimental way to test the hypothesis. Still, Galvani was transfixed by the notion that electricity—the stuff in lightning—might be the same mechanism by which God had given breath to man and all other creatures. He was equally transfixed by the notion that he could be the first to discover this facet of God’s beneficence.

So, in 1780, he created a research program on the role of electricity in muscular motion, and then set about building a home laboratory that would allow him to spend more time on these experiments. The lab contained an electrostatic machine, a Leyden jar, and other more recently invented variants on this electrical equipment.

From there, he began to experiment on frogs. Why frogs? Their nerves are easy to locate, their muscle contractions are easy to see, and can continue up to forty-four hours after the frog has been carved into the grisly configuration that Galvani referred to as his “preparation.” Graphic illustrations of the amphibian experiments suffuse all of Galvani’s publications. One shows a frog with its head and midsection almost entirely missing, save for the exposed gossamer strings of the two crural nerves that still connect its legs to its spine.18 In others, the frogs are cut in half below the upper limbs, then skinned and disemboweled. Only their legs remain, joined to each other by a nub of spine. In another, Galvani and his scientific collaborators, Giovanni Aldini (his nephew) and Lucia (his wife), stand in his basement lab, surrounded by dozens of these flayed corpses.

This very particular method of preparing his frogs—from which Galvani never deviated—was inspired by Lazzaro Spallanzani, one of the most important naturalists of the time and Galvani’s frequent correspondent. Spallanzani’s specifications made it extremely easy to distinguish cause and effect. With everything but nerve stripped away, there could be no confusion about what happened when you put electricity into a muscle or nerve.

Galvani started his research with a series of experiments designed to help him understand why electrical current from artificial sources caused muscle contractions. Applying a zap to a muscle obviously caused the muscle to twitch, but by what mechanism? At first he simply repeated previous experiments, touching an electrical contact to various parts of the frog’s body. To send the electricity from the generator into the specific parts he wanted to target, he used wires and other metal objects called arcs, connected to the source of external electricity speared into various parts of the frog.


  • **One of Next Big Idea Club's Nonfiction Books to Watch Out for in 2023**
  • **Audible's New & Noteworthy Nonfiction Selection**
  • "In her engaging debut...[Adee] traces efforts to explore--and sometimes exploit--the human "electrome," doing full justice to the complex issues surrounding the body's electric forces."—The New York Times Book Review (Editor's Choice)
  • "Sally Adee manages that most difficult feat in science writing: taking a subject you didn’t know you cared about and making it genuinely fascinating and exciting. The ‘ohmigod-that’s-so-cool’ moments come thick and fast as she brings the science up to date, investigating today’s cutting edge and what the future may hold for bioelectric medicine. It’s a vast and hugely exciting area of scientific research, shared with infectious enthusiasm, a real depth of knowledge, a smart and funny turn of phrase. You’ll never think of life in the same way again."—Caroline Williams, author of Move!: The New Science of Body Over Mind
  • “The human body runs on an electricity we barely understand. Unlocking its secrets has the potential to usher in a new age of human health interventions that will revolutionize the way we comprehend and treat our most common maladies. In this fascinating look at this next frontier of scientific discovery, Sally Adee explores the untold history of bioelectricity and sketches its tantalizing, and promising, future.”—Jamie Metzl, author of Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity
  • “If you thought genetics was the secret of life, think again: in We Are Electric, Sally Adee vividly explores the magic of bioelectricity, and how it affects every aspect of our being. A joy to read—I loved this book.”—Joseph Jebelli, author of In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight Against Alzheimer's
  • “As Sally Adee describes with great wit and insight, we are nothing without electricity: it’s the stuff of life, and of death. This is such a thrilling, compelling and energizing book - reading it, I couldn’t help picturing the author as Zeus, chucking lightning bolts at me. Such a timely book, too. The future is - I’m sorry, I can’t help it - electrifying.”—Rowan Hooper, author of How To Save The World For Just A Trillion Dollars
  • “The electrome may be as important to our understanding of life as the genetic code—yet few of us are aware of these groundbreaking developments. With scintillating storytelling, Sally Adee takes us to into the heart of this scientific revolution and its potential to transform medicine. We Are Electric is science writing at its very best—it shimmers with wit and insight. Prepare to be entertained, enlightened, and yes, electrified, by this brilliant book.”—David Robson, author of The Intelligence Trap and The Expectation Effect
  • “This book blew my mind. We Are Electric is a thrilling read, and Sally Adee explains everything from the intricacies of our electric cells to the potential for new medical treatments—and brain-hacking—with a sparkling clarity.”—Michael Brooks, author of The Art of More: How Mathematics Created Civilization
  • “[In] her excellent first book, We Are Electric, about the newly discovered world of the body’s so-called electrome….Sally Adee has written an absorbing and fast-paced account of a field of research that could thus herald a whole new era of paradigm-shifting medicine. Moreover, she has done so without apparently drinking the Kool-Aid of today’s many bioelectricity boosters….Adee has performed sterling service in persuading us to contemplate the benefits and possible implications of what seems our inevitable electric future.”—Simon Winchester, The New York Times
  • "Fascinating stuff."—Terry Gross, "Fresh Air" (NPR)
  • “The research [Adee] describes is certainly remarkable, and her enthusiasm for bioelectricity’s enormous potential makes We Are Electric a lively read.”—The Wall Street Journal
  • "Adee wades through piles of up-to-the-minute research about the human bioelectrical system and how it can be manipulated, intentionally or not; if nothing else, it will make you marvel anew at your body as an infinitely intricate machine."—Gregory Cowles, The New York Times Book Review
  • "Adee entertainingly introduces the electrome, encompassing all the different roles that electricity plays in living creatures."—Financial Times (Best Summer Books of 2023)
  • “Adee gives an entertaining account… Adee’s enthusiasm is infectious, and she conveys well the jaw-dropping scale and complexity of this newly discovered ‘electrome.’ This ‘bioelectrical revolution’ is more than medicine.”—Times of London
  • "In her debut book, [Sally Adee] paints a riveting (and often humorous) picture of 200 years of research on the bioelectricity coursing through our bodies, from debates over twitching frogs’ legs to devices developed to give sensation back to people with traumatic nerve injuries."—Scientific American
  • “One thing readers might not expect from a book that illustrates the intricacies of ion channels: It’s surprisingly funny….energy thrums through the book, charging her storytelling like a staticky balloon. Adee is especially electrifying in a chapter about spinal nerve regeneration and why initial experiments juddered to a halt….Such implants bring many challenges — like how to marry electronics to living tissue—but Adee’s book leaves readers with a sense of excitement.”

  • “A stylish recounting of the story of bioelectricity, its dramatic history and thrilling possibilities…. Adee is a reassuring guide through this complex and controversial subject. Her technical explanations are exemplary, rendering biological processes comprehensible to those almost entirely uninitiated with the life sciences…. It is astonishing that We Are Electric is the first popular science book on this subject; it taps into the magic of science that we are only on the brink of understanding. A book which does its fascinating subject justice: elegant, exciting and expertly written.”—The Institution of Engineering and Technology, E&T Magazine
  • "Adee, a former technology watcher for New Scientist, has put together an admirably comprehensive and clear look at electrical life, past, present and future....Adee remains impressively surefooted while balancing all these demands....Add some enterprising personal reporting, and a slew of good stories...and the result is entirely readable."—The Arts Desk
  • “The author also tells us – in her often amusing, always engaging style – that it is the electrome that determines where our heart, brain or kidneys should be located….It is staggering to learn here that scientists are using algorithms to decode the electrical signals from our brain, and, thus, read our thoughts…. Our future appears electric, and this book does a great job of explaining why.”—Irish Times
  • "A revelatory survey of bioelectricity...[Adee] masterfully shows the implications of new discoveries and spotlights where the science doesn’t add up....With lucid explanations and fascinating anecdotes, Adee is the perfect guide to this hidden realm. Pop science fans, take note."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
  • “[Adee] provides a wealth of material to think about. A clear, intriguing examination of a field with huge potential.”

    Kirkus Reviews
  • "In this ground-breaking book, the electrome is explained simply and easily for the first time as science and technology writer Adee investigates how biology and electricity converge in our bodies (bioelectricity) and the impact this could have on future medical breakthroughs....[We Are Electric is] a book that’ll make you fundamentally rethink what you know and appreciate about your body."—Stylist.co (UK)
  • "The book is packed with...fantastic stuff."—IEEE Spectrum podcast

On Sale
Feb 28, 2023
Page Count
352 pages
Hachette Books

Sally Adee

About the Author

Sally Adee is a science and technology writer. Most recently, she was a features editor at New Scientist, where she wrote some of its most lasting content, including a 2012 feature that broke the bioelectricity technology to the general public and is cited in Yuval Noah Harari's Homo Deus. Adee's writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Economist, BBC Future, and Quartz. She has spoken on the Economist's Intelligence podcast, NPR’s Radiolab, Canadian Broadcasting's The Current, and BBC Breakfast. She is the science consultant for the TV adaptation of Naomi Alderman's The Power (Amazon Studios) and has won a US National Press Club award, a BT Information Security Award, and the Guild of Health Writers Award for her inside account of Silicon Valley's young blood clinics. Adee is a citizen of Germany and the US, and lives in London.

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