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BYB Debunks Jeopardy and Un-Debunks Luigi Galvani

Written by Tim Marzullo

Jeopardy is an American institution, and we have fond memories of watching their episodes with our families during our youth. We still watch reruns to relax, and recently something caught our eye. While watching episode 8364, which originally played on March 21, 2021 (Season 37) with guest host Dr. Mehmet Oz and contestants Amal Dorai, Doug Small (local shout-out, from nearby Ypsilanti), and Lisa O’Brien, we were intrigued by the final Jeopardy category: “Literary Inspirations.” Interesting, what could it be? You can imagine our delight when this was the clue.

Jeopardy Luigi Galvani

Of course, we at Backyard Brains know this answer, having written three experiments/histories on our website about our hero Luigi Galvani:

  1. The Dancing Cockroach Leg
  2. The Galvani/Volta Debate
  3. In Search of the Spike
Jeopardy: What is Frankenstein?

The answer is, of course, the compelling novel that birthed the genre of science fiction, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.” Shelley was indeed inspired by Galvani’s experiments, even famously mentioning “Galvanism” in her preface to the novel: “Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things.” If you haven’t read it, we highly recommend it. The book is often misquoted in contemporary society. No spoilers, but you will understand why. Also, feel guilty that you did invent a whole new genre of literature when you were 19 (yes, that’s how old she was when she finished the book).

However, we visibly winced at the mention of the word “debunked.” Luigi Galvani debunked! Quite the contrary.

Galvani vs. Volta debate illustrated by Backyard Brains

But wait, there’s more! When the first contestant answered correctly (pictured above), Dr. Oz responded “Correct! It is an interesting story actually, because he thought electricity was the source of all life. Volta proved him wrong, but the legend persisted.”

It is indeed an interesting story, but we are not going to let Volta continue to get the last word.

Galvani lived in the early days of electricity investigation in the late 18th century, and thoroughly confirmed that electric sparks can excite muscle and nerve tissue in his famous frog preparations. Through careful experiments, which we go over in detail (again, see the Galvani vs. Volta Debate), Galvani hypothesized that nerve and muscle tissue generated its own electricity to function. His colleague and rival, the now more famous Alessandro Volta, hypothesized that while electricity could excite tissue, the tissue itself did not use electricity to function: that is, nerves and muscles do not generate their own electricity.

Jeopardy TV quizz

Poor Galvani was ahead of his time. It took >150 years after his first experiments for electronic amplifiers to be invented using vacuum tubes to prove once and for all that vertebrate neurons, muscles, and hearts all generate their own electricity and use it for their functioning. What Galvani couldn’t show to Volta to convince Volta that his ideas were correct, Backyard Brains now does every day.

Also, sir, Volta did not “prove Galvani wrong.” Volta thought that the mix of metal tools and salt water (the frog tissue) generated electricity, not the frog tissue itself. Which, as in every great scientific debate, has some truth to it as well. Putting two different metals together with a salt/acidic solution between them generates um…….. the battery, which Volta indeed invented, became wealthy, and began the electronic age we still marvel at. 

Galvani’s best response to Volta was a difficult preparation, that only worked in very fresh frogs, showing that when he joined two recently dissected nerves together (no metal involved), sometimes the leg muscles contracted. Unfortunately, this was only indirect evidence that the nerves were generating their own electricity. But… again, his hunch was correct. 

BYB is such a fan of this history because two disciplines began due to the debate. Galvani is the “father” of electrophysiology, and by extension, Backyard Brains. Volta is the “father” of electronics, and by extension, Backyard Brains as well. 

Galvani had the keen insight to hypothesize that electricity plays a fundamental role in physiology. Even bacteria have electrical signals. Is electricity all you need to create life (something Galvani never appears to have said anyway)? No. But is it critical to cell physiology? Absolutely. 

Thus, Don Galvani, we hereby Un-Debunk you in our humble capacity, no matter what Jeopardy says.

Galvani vs. Volta Backyard Brains

P.S. I – Two of three contestants got this clue right, but one incorrectly answered “Who is Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde,” which is not a bad response – another provocative 19th century English novel (written by Robert Louis Stephenson). 

P.S. II – It is also bizarre to think that our current zeitgeist of AGI (artificial general intelligence) began in the18th-century Italy with a straightforward experiment on electricity in frog nerves and muscles.

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