Elle and Creating Electricity

Note: this was originally posted on my blog on tumblr.com. I have tried to convert some of the formatting over, however there may be some inconsistencies. Also this particular entry was written before I knew how to cite scientific sources, so sources will either be nonexistent or incorrectly cited. 

In case you didn’t know, most humans (and animals) can’t shoot electricity from their hands. I’m sorry if I just destroyed some childhood dream of yours there.

Still there are some animals, mostly fish, that have an ability that is comparable to Elle’s. They can create electric fields and use them to see, find mates, talk, and some of them can even use these fields to kill and stun prey.

The most famous of these fish that you probably have heard of is the electric eel, but there are loads more (also platypuses because they just can’t be normal like every other mammal). The thing that makes the eel special is that it can produce 600 volts of electricity, which won’t do anything to a human but would definitely kill the tiny fish that the eel eats. Most other electric animals don’t have that type of fire power.

So how does this work? When the fish is still an embryo a group of muscle cells forms a ball, the cells on the outside of this ball develop special membranes that are extremely excitable, the cells on the inside of the ball lose their membranes. This creates an electric organ. In a fish this is usually near the tail and has neurons connecting it to the spine. What the electric organ does is it lets out a positive charge that creates an electric field around the fish. The electricity moves away from the fish as it swims through the water, bounces off rocks and coral and other fish, and then bounces back to the electric fish, which has special receptors in its skin that respond to the electricity, allowing it to sense its environment.

Think if it like echolocation, but with electricity. The animal is making an image of its environment with the waves that bounce back to it rather than from light entering its eyes (which is how humans see).

Not only do electric fish use these fields to see, but some fish also use them to talk to each other. Some fish have species specific pulses that they emit to attract a mate or alert each other of a nearby predator, like birdsong only you have to have an electric organ to detect it.

And this leads me to Elle. While none of these fish have the ability to shoot lightning out of their hands, it seems likely that Elle would have some sort of electric organ somewhere in her body. While it might not be at the base of her spine, this location seems like the most likely place. The direct charge from the organ is a good distance away from the heart so it would be less likely to interfere with its function, it also it pretty much as far from the brain as it can get which is usually a good thing. Electricity and the brain don’t always play nice, particularly when you have the capacity to shoot lightning.

Elle first must have a larger electric organ than electric fish, which makes sense since she is larger. In that organ she also probably has more electrocytes, cells that act like batteries to create the electricity. This would allow her to create a larger charge. What is unclear is how she is able to channel this electricity from the electric organ to other parts of her body, like her hands. In the fish the electricity flows all over them, not just in one focused area. I think there are a few ways she could do this:

She could have multiple electric organs throughout her body, mostly in the palms of her hands since that is where she tends to emit the most current.  Or she could have highly insulated neurons running throughout her body almost like a second nervous system, this would allow her to control where the signal went and the intensity of the electricity that she wants to emit. Or it could be a combination of these two things, a series of electric organs throughout her body connected by nerves.

However unlike fish, Elle doesn’t appear to have receptors in her skin that can take in the electricity and use it to make an image. She also can be hurt by her own charge (eels don’t appear to be hurt by their own charge because they release the charge for such a short amount of time that it cannot cause any tissue damage, Elle however uses her ability for long periods of time which would damage internal organs and the skin after prolonged use).

We also never see her using her ability for any sort of image-formation, which would be useful in dark places, or communication with anyone else with the same ability. And there could be a few reasons for this. She could have been born without the receptors in her skin that can read electric signals.  But I think it’s more likely that she was born with these receptors, and then they were inhibited by the stress that she endured by being experimented on as a child. This could be a physical inhibition, she didn’t know how to control her ability so she ended up damaging the receptors beyond repair by accident, or it could be physiological, the trauma altered the way her ability functions in some way.

my lecture notes
Scientific American


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