Saturday, October 3, 2009

11. Sodium


Electric Pickles

Try it yourself: in a dim room, impale a kosher dill pickle on two prongs, each of which is attached to one wire from an electric cord. Then (observing all possible safety precautions) plug it in.

Briefly, little happens. You hear a hum. You smell a stench. A wisp of smoke floats upward from the tormented pickle.

And then—what's this? One end of the pickle lights up! It sheds a lovely flickering yellow glow. In the darkened room, the effect is entrancing.

It's a moment of wonder and magic.

Here's the explanation: the atoms of NaCl salt in the pickle's brine exist as free-floating sodium and chlorine ions within the watery interstices of its cells. When electricity is pumped through the system, the sodium ions rush to one pole of your homemade device to seize an electron and make themselves complete. The ion rises one quantum level up and is made temporarily complete.

Like a not-fully-competent juggler, however, the sodium ion can seize the extra electron but cannot hold it. The ion falls from the higher energy quantum to the lower, releasing a packet of light in the process. Thus the lovely yellow glow.

Shakespeare was an electric pickle, and so was Virginia Woolf when she wrote A Room of One's Own. They were hooked into the psychic electricity of their times. They took in more energy than one person can hold. They went up a quantum. They fell back down. They shed light.

Try it yourself: plug into the Zeitgeist. Feel the power. Now create a work of art. Shed the light.

See how easy it is? I told you so.

The pickle, unfortunately, is not much good for anything after this exercise. Throw it out.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

1 comment:

  1. I love these! I'm so glad you put them back up. This one creeped me out so much the first time I read it. Brilliant work.