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AC/DC: The Tesla–Edison Feud

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You’ve probably heard about the famous rivalry between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison—both giants of electrical engineering whose innovations changed history. But what exactly was their history with one another?

That whole boss/employee thing. Tesla, a Serbian by parentage, began working for the phone company in Budapest. In 1882, he headed for Paris, where he took a job with the Continental Edison Company. He was invited to work stateside after his supervisor wrote a recommendation praising the young man as a genius on par with Edison himself. While he hired Tesla, Edison thought the man's ideas were “splendid” but “utterly impractical.”

Clash of the methods.

Edison relied heavily on tedious experimentation for most of his discoveries, a commitment which some historians attribute partially to his lack of formal education. Tesla, in contrast, was an emotionally driven dreamer with years of engineering training, which allowed him to work out theories before physically implementing them. Later in life, each man publicly criticized the other’s work.

Clash of the lifestyles. Tesla was a germaphobe, fastidiously clean to the point of (allegedly) using seventeen clean towels a day, and claiming to have a “violent aversion against the earrings of women.” He once told the New York Times that Edison "had no hobby, cared for no amusement of any kind and lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene."

Clash of the...similarities? Edison and Tesla were alike in some equally irreconcilable ways. Both were egocentrics who abhorred egocentricity in others. And both men required little sleep, which would have made for many long, grumpy hours in the workshop.

War of Currents! Edison’s least favorite of Tesla’s “impractical” ideas was the concept of using alternating current (AC) technology to bring electricity to the people. Edison insisted that his own direct current (DC) system was superior, in that it maintained a lower voltage from power station to consumer, and was, therefore, safer. But AC technology, which allows the flow of energy to periodically change direction, is more practical for transmitting massive quantities of energy, as is required by a large city, or hub of industry, say. At the time, DC technology only allowed for a power grid with a one-mile radius from the power source. The conflict between the two methods and their masters came to be known as the War of Currents, forever immortalized by the band AC/DC.

The Bet. Tesla insisted that he could increase the efficiency of Edison’s prototypical dynamos, and eventually wore down Edison enough to let him try. Edison, Tesla later claimed, even promised him $50,000 if he succeeded. Tesla worked around the clock for several months and made a great deal of progress. When he demanded his reward, Edison claimed the offer was a joke, saying, “When you become a full-fledged American, you will appreciate an American joke.” Edison offered a $10/week raise, instead. Ever prideful, Tesla quit, and spent the next few months picking up odd jobs across New York City. Nikola Tesla: ditch digger.

The rift. Tesla eventually raised enough money to found the Tesla Electric Light Company, where he developed several successful patents including AC generators, wires, transformers, lights, and a 100 horsepower AC motor. Always more of a visionary than a businessman, Tesla ended up selling most of his patents (for the healthy but finite sum of $1 million) to George Westinghouse, an inventor, entrepreneur, and engineer who had himself been feuding with Edison for years. In fact, Westinghouse was a more economic participant in the War of Currents than was Tesla. Their partnership, one can imagine, made the eventual popularizing of AC that much more bitter for Edison.

“Post-war” history. In the end, AC won out. Mostly. Westinghouse fulfilled Tesla’s dream of building a power plant at Niagara Falls to power New York City, and built upon its principles the same system of local power grids we use today. Edison’s original point about the practicality of DC is well-taken, however: The average person can’t have alternating currents flooding massive amounts of energy into their household appliances, so most plug-in devices must internally convert AC back to DC (that’s what’s going on inside the brick of your laptop cord). That conversion wastes a lot of energy (think of all the heat coming from the brick of your laptop cord). Major studies are beginning to examine ways in which AC and DC power can work together with modern energy-harnessing technology, to run our overall grid more efficiently.

Tesla on Edison: "If he had a needle to find in a haystack he would not stop to reason where it was most likely to be, but would proceed at once, with the feverish diligence of a bee, to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. ... I was almost a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety per cent of his labor."
New York Times, October 19, 1931 (the day after Edison died)

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The T. Rex Fossil That Caused a Scientific Controversy
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In the early 2000s, a team of paleontologists inadvertently set the stage for a years-long scientific saga after they excavated a well-preserved partial Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton from Montana's Hell Creek formation. While transporting the bones, the scientists were forced to break a femur. Pieces from inside the thigh bone fell out, and these fragments were sent to Mary Schweitzer, a paleontologist at North Carolina State University, for dissection and analysis.

Under a microscope, Schweitzer thought she could make out what appeared to be cells and tiny blood vessels inside the pieces, similar to those commonly discovered inside fresh bone. Further analysis revealed what appeared to be animal proteins, which sent Schweitzer reeling. Could she have just discovered soft tissue inside dinosaur leg bone many millions of years old, found in ancient sediments laid down during the Cretaceous period? Or was the soft stuff simply a substance known as biofilm, which would have been formed by microbes after the bone had already fossilized?

Following a seemingly endless series of debates, studies, and papers, Schweitzer's hunch was proven correct. That said, this contentious conclusion wasn't made overnight. To hear the whole saga—and learn what it means for science—watch the recent episode of Stated Clearly below, which was first spotted by website Earth Archives.

[h/t Earth Archives]

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Essential Science
What Is Antibiotic Resistance?
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The news is full of terms like "superbug," "post-antibiotic era," and an alphabet soup of abbreviations including NDM-1, MCR-1 (both antibiotic resistance genes), MRSA (a type of antibiotic-resistant bacteria), and others. These all refer to various aspects of antibiotic resistance—the ability of bacteria to out-maneuver the drugs which are supposed to kill them and stop an infection.

Now, there is concern that we could move back into a situation like that which existed in the early 20th century—a post-antibiotic era. Mental Floss spoke to Meghan Davis, a veterinarian and assistant professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University, about some of the potential outcomes of losing antibiotics. "We have generations of recorded history that identify the risks to human society from infectious diseases that we are unable to treat or prevent," Davis warns.

WHY IS ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCE DANGEROUS?

If an individual becomes ill due to a bacterial infection, they typically see their physician for treatment. But in the years before antibiotics were discovered, people frequently died from scenarios we find difficult to fathom, including mere cuts or scratches that led to untreatable infections. Ear infections or urinary tract infections could lead to sepsis (bacteria in the blood). Arms or legs were surgically removed before an infected wound could lead to death.

When antibiotics were discovered, it's no surprise they were referred to as a "magic bullet" (or Zauberkugel in German, as conceived by medical pioneer Paul Ehrlich [PDF]). The drugs could wipe out an infection but not harm the host. They allowed people to recover from even the most serious of infections, and heralded a new era in medicine where people no longer feared bacteria.

Davis says the existence of antibiotics themselves has changed how we use medicine. Many medical procedures now rely on antibiotics to treat infections that may result from the intervention. "What is different about a post-antibiotic modern world is that we have established new patterns of behavior and medical norms that rely on the success of antimicrobial treatments," she says. "Imagine transplant or other major surgeries without the ability to control opportunistic infections with antibiotics. Loss of antibiotics would challenge many of our medical innovations."

WHERE DOES ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCE COME FROM?

One reason antibiotic resistance is difficult to control is that our antibiotics are derivatives of natural products. Our first antibiotic, penicillin, came from a common mold. Fungi, bacteria, parasites, and viruses all produce products to protect themselves as they battle each other in their microbial environments. We've taken advantage of the fruits of millions of years' worth of these invisible wars to harness antibiotics for our use. (This is also why we can find antibiotic resistance genes even in ancient bacteria that have never seen modern antibiotic drugs—because we've exploited the chemicals they use to protect themselves).

These microbes have evolved ways to evade their enemies—antibiotic resistance genes. Sometimes the products of these genes will render the antibiotic useless by chopping it into pieces or pumping it out of the bacterial cell. Importantly, these resistance genes can be swapped among different bacterial species like playing cards. Sometimes the genes will be useless because the bacteria aren't being exposed to a particular drug, but sometimes they'll be dealt an ace and survive while others die from antibiotic exposure.

And many of these resistance genes are already out there in the bacterial populations. Imagine just one in a million bacterial cells that are growing in a human gut have a resistance gene already in their DNA. When a person takes a dose of antibiotics, all the susceptible bacteria will die off—but that one-in-a-million bacterium that can withstand the antibiotic suddenly has a lot of room to replicate, and the population of bacteria carrying that resistance gene will dramatically increase.

If the person then transfers those resistant gut bacteria to others, resistance can spread as well. This is why it's important to keep control over antibiotic use in all populations—because someone else's use of the drugs can potentially make your own bacteria resistant to antibiotics. This is also why hand washing is important: You can unknowingly pick up new bacteria all the time from other people, animals, or surfaces. Washing your hands will send most of these passenger bacteria down the sink drain, instead of allowing them to live on your body.

WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT?

Most importantly, never ask for antibiotics from your doctor; if you have a bacterial infection that can be treated by antibiotics, your doctor will prescribe them. Many illnesses are due to viruses (such as the common cold), but antibiotics only work against bacteria. It is useless to take antibiotics for a virus, and doing so will only breed resistance in the other bacteria living in your body, which can predispose you or others in your household and community to developing an antibiotic-resistant infection. Remember, those resistant bacteria can linger in your body—in your gut, on your skin, in your mouth and elsewhere, and can swap resistance genes from the mostly harmless bacteria you live with to the nasty pathogens you may encounter, further spreading resistance in the population.

Antibiotics are also used in animals, including livestock. Purchasing meat that is labeled "raised without antibiotics" will reduce your chance of acquiring antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are generated on the farm and can be spread via meat products.

Davis notes clients often requested antibiotics for their pets as well, even when it was an issue that did not require them. She explained to them why antibiotics were not necessary. She counsels, "Individuals can partner with their physician and veterinarian to promote good antimicrobial stewardship. Use of antibiotics carries risks, and these risks are related both to side effects and to promotion of resistance. Therefore, decisions to use antibiotics should be treated with caution and deliberation."

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