About Electrotonic Letters

Electrotonic Letters is all about energy: the history of energy; where the term, “energy” comes from; and how energy logic dominates our lives, from our approach to climate change, to work and productivity culture, to chronic illness, to unequal exposure of risk and precarity, to the self-help genre. 

Have you ever considered how capacious the term, “energy,” is? Think about it. It means fuel, food, resources, vigor, and vitality. In scientific parlance, energy is the ability to perform “work,” and the universe is full of energy transfers from one kind to another. It refers to a personal quality we attribute to individuals and even to things; but it can also describe types of fuel, or the metaphorical fuel in our own “tanks” as we get through the day. This newsletter breaks down the etymology of energy and extends insights ranging from energy’s pre-scientific days, to its nineteenth-century provenance in thermodynamics, to calculations in twentieth-century fatigue studies, into issues that we care about today. For instance: why do we sink so much value into, and tend to stake our identities on, what we do for a living? What’s with that? And why are we so obsessed with how productive, efficient, and busy we are? Or, why is it important for us to broaden the definition of infrastructure to include anti-racist and socially-directed questions about access, precarity, and exposure? How can we combine these threads with ongoing conversations about chronic illness, and what does a history of energy language add to arguments about accommodation, accessibility, and care? Electrotonic Letters delivers regular, well-researched pieces on these topics and more. 

Electrotonic, though. What does that even mean?

The “electrotonic state” is a neologism introduced by experimental physicist Michael Faraday in his 1831 “Experimental Researches in Electricity.” You’ve probably studied, or heard of, the phenomenon of induction. Induction describes the production of voltage across an electrical conductor when it is introduced to a changing magnetic field. In his “Experimental Researches,” Faraday hypothesizes that electricity and magnetism are related phenomena. His early work introduces two ideas about how electricity propagates. First, the “electrotonic state” describes a polarized condition of matter, whereby particles hold opposite electrical states on different parts of each molecule. Faraday posits that the contiguous appearance and dissipation of this “tension” between particles draws an electric current. Second, he describes web-like fields, or what he calls “lines of force,” emanating from electromagnetic bodies. An electric current is induced in a changing magnetic field when a conductor “cuts” these curved lines of force. 

Michael Faraday, “On the Physical Character of the Lines of Magnetic Force,” Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, Fourth Series, 3, no. 20 (June 1852): 411-412. http:/dx.doi.org/10.1080/14786445208647033

I think Faraday is pretty rad (reference the photo of me standing by a statue of him in London). He was a mostly self-educated, working-class dude who sort of did his own thing as far as experimental physics goes, and whose work was ignored by the greater scientific establishment until those traditionalists realized they needed him. But I’ve named my newsletter “Electrotonic Letters” because it signals the complexity and overdeterminism of energy as a project. 

Faraday’s electrotonic state was coined pre-thermodynamics. Obviously we no longer refer to an electrotonic state when we discuss electricity and magnetism, though we still draw field lines that gesture to Faraday’s lines of force. The shifting, palimpsestic representations of energy, before and after its scientific definition, remind me that energy is not a thing out there that we simply observe, measure, and represent. Rather, energy is an assemblage of language, physical phenomena, politics, and culture; and it is always, always changing. Apropos of transformation, energy is actually the science of change. As I argue in this newsletter, the act of representing energy was and is undergirded by figurative language, which also operates on principles of transformation (e.g., transforming one thing into another through metaphor). The posts in Electrotonic Letters engage with the power of unveiling the concept of energy in all of its multi-modal transformations.

About Me

I earned a PhD in English (2021) from the University of California, Riverside, where I specialized in Victorian literature and the history of nineteenth-century energy science. Before that, I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a BA in English (2015) and a BS in mechanical engineering (2012). I have several years of experience working as a mechanical engineer in the commercial aerospace industry, and briefer experience working as a technical writer in the space industry. I have five years of experience teaching literature and composition courses at the college level. 

I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with my husband and two perfect, rescue dogs (one 75% dachshund, one 100% mutt). I was born in Pittsburgh; I moved to southern California for grad school; I returned to Pittsburgh after graduating, and I am never leaving this city again. 

Electrotonic Letters evolved from a small, infrequently updated personal blog, born of my passion for research, thinking, and writing on Victorian literature and energy physics. This newsletter became something more as those ideas broadened in scope, finding concerns amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic and fleshing out the history of energy logic into discourses of chronic illness and precarity, work and productivity culture, and the self-help genre. 

As a chronically ill person (I have a disease that is almost lupus, but not quite), I am often baffled that my dissertation project completely overlooked these areas of research. For instance, the dissertation argues that a public literacy of energy history and language matters because our current climate emergency requires an ongoing postcolonial, feminist, and anti-racist engagement with the politics of sustainability; but I say nothing about how that energy history and language inform our experiences of chronic illness, work-as-identity, and obsession with productivity as virtue in work culture, specifically. Consider this newsletter my attempt to fill my own research gaps and share crucial tidbits about the history of energy with you.

For fun, I play the violin and the piano, but I don’t pretend I’m a talented musician. I used to play the guitar and was actually terrible. You can follow me for mostly dog content and the occasional raised-bed garden update on Instagram

Why Subscribe

Maybe Electrotonic Letters strikes you as niche content at first blush, but I am convinced that just about anyone can benefit from this newsletter. Consider the following:

  • Do you care about the environment and climate change and wish to know more about how we got ourselves into this mess? Electrotonic Letters is for you.

  • Are you a science enthusiast who is curious about the history of thermodynamics and energy physics, more broadly? Electrotonic Letters is for you.

  • Maybe you’re a history buff and want a deeper dive into energy science’s role in the age of New Imperialism? Electrotonic Letters is for you.

  • Have you read Victorian novels and find yourself wondering how on earth thermodynamics and Dickens are connected? This newsletter is for you, too.

  • Maybe you’re burned out on your job and you just want to figure out how things got so bad. I’ve got you covered.

  • Are you chronically ill and wonder how energy metaphor wormed its way into illness language?

  • Have you considered how screwed up it is that our culture and jobs are totally obsessed with lifestyles that create and then make no space for chronically ill bodies?

  • Have you noticed that historically marginalized people are more at risk for chronic illnesses like autoimmune disease and less likely to be taken seriously when they report their pain? Say it with me: energy logic

In addition to publishing substantive, well-researched pieces, Electrotonic Letters is a toolkit of resources for those who want to learn more about the topics this newsletter synthesizes, including: Victorian literature and culture, nineteenth-century physics, energy humanities, medical humanities, chronic illness discourses, and criticism of productivity and self-help culture.

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Delivering regular letters and tidbits on the history of energy, from nineteenth-century thermodynamics to contemporary work culture and chronic illness.

People

I'm a chronically ill Victorianist (PhD) who studies how concepts of energy form, and how adhering to concepts of energy governance imposes uneven burdens on us, demanding the most from historically marginalized persons.