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Word Count: 1,998
WHEN the commonplaces of one discipline are applied to an unrelated field they can prove curiously fruitful In 1952 two British physiologists Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley managed just such a fruitful crossover applying textbook physics to living tissue They were both later knighted and shared a Nobel prize in 1963 The experimental method they pioneered remains fundamental to research into the behaviour of nerve cells As anyone who has ever had an electric shock knows electricity has powerful effects on living matter Luigi Galvani found in 1771 that electricity could make the muscles from frogs legs contract soon afterwards physiologists came to suspect that all sensation and movement depended upon electric pulses in nerve and muscle But how does electricity pass through living things By the time Dr Hodgkin and Dr Huxley as they then were came to these questions other researchers had discovered various things about nerve cells One of the most intriguing was that messages down nerves are as loud when received as they were when transmitted--unlike messages sent down cables which attenuate with distance Physiologists thought that this active transmission had something to do with sudden and short-lived changes in the electrical resistance of a nerve fibres outer membrane The link between transmission and changing resistance was the subject of decades of increasingly intense speculation Progress was slow because the nerves were not as the police put it assisting in the inquiries Nerve fibres are made of axons which are hairlike protrusions that grow out of nerve cells They are small and delicate unforgiving of rough treatment The surges in the voltage across the cell membrane now called action potentials are complex events lasting only a couple of milliseconds Difficulties with delicacy and speed often thwarted the physiologists working on nerves before the second world war Another problem was the action potentials uncompromising nature it is either present at full strength or absent altogether never anything in-between
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