February 10, 1915 [The Wonders of Magnetism]

Now I understand the principles behind electromagnetic iron ore separation. The disembodied hands manipulate the magnets, turn over small bits of metal, seek to instruct us in the simple but fine points of attraction.

As plain and declarative as it may be, the film does not distract me from the mystery—all right, the poetry—of science. Or its altercations. Later this year the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences will be awarding Nobel prizes, and already rumors abound that either Edison or Tesla (or both) will receive the prize for physics—and that in any case their feud will rage on. The medal features Isis as Nature and the "Genius of Science" lifting the veil that covers her face. It is the veil (even more than the cornucopia Isis holds) that interests me—and the inscription, from the Aeneid, extolling (in Latin, of course) the virtues of those who "better life on earth with their new-found mastery." And while Edison plugs along, his cinematic fortunes perhaps on the wane but his legacy immortalized, Nikola Tesla clenches his fists in impotent rage, sparks, as always, flying in jagged ropes from his frame, his fortunes failing even more than his rival's—but his legend growing, like the after-image on the surface of the eye after a bright flash—or the illusion of dynamic motion as still photographs race through the projector. And while the mysticism of electricity also seems to be fading (as in this film, merely these days a schoolroom demonstration, tame as a textbook), I can not forget the old conviction that electricity knows us, feels us coming as certainly as dogs presage lightning—and sends us messages—not, however, as Marconi (another of Tesla's mortal foes) promises, but from beneath the veil of Isis, peeking like a half-submerged thing, waiting for us to turn and recognize her coiling in the air, a current that lights the scene in a blinding ghost-flash.

Well. Perhaps I do not, after all, understand the principles behind electromagnetic iron ore separation.


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