The lecture hall at the Academy of Sciences had never been so full. A great man of science was due to lecture on the latest scientific marvel, which was rumoured to be a newly discovered force of nature. Among the earnest young women and the gentlemen in powdered wigs sat a man who was so ordinary and average-looking that he seemed out of place. Grey eyes, brown hair, average height, simple clothes. His hands were folded in his lap and he was looking at the stage with a mild curiosity that was very different from the feverish excitement around him. He was sure he knew exactly what today’s lecture would be about. He even thought he knew how it might affect his life. It might be interesting. Possibly the most interesting thing that had happened to him since he had last been in the city. That had been so long ago that he felt like a stranger now. Certainly all the other audience members thought he was a stranger.
The scientist walked out onto the stage to thunderous applause. He looked exactly like a scientist should look, the audience thought, from his mane of bushy hair to the way he walked, as though he had springs attached to his feet. His coat was too big and flapped behind him. The stranger in the audience smiled at the artfully applied scorch-marks and burns that dotted the sleeves. He had always had a love for theatrics and could tell he was currently in the presence of a master.
A hush fell over the lecture hall. The scientist stood in the middle of the stage with his hands clasped in front of him and his head slightly bowed. He let the silence settle and creep into the furthest corners before spreading out his arms. His voice started as a whisper but grew louder and stronger with every word.
“Ladies and gentlemen, esteemed audience,” he said, with a small bow. “You all know how mysterious nature can be, and what powers lie hidden in the depths of the ocean, the bowels of the earth and the skies above us. I will demonstrate to you how I have harnessed one of these mysterious powers, for the benefit of all mankind!”
There were murmurs of appreciation and little gasps of delight. The stranger thought he would quite like to see this scientist on a different sort of stage, playing something of Shakespeare’s perhaps, or one of the Greek tragedies.
He loved the theatre, the Greek plays in particular. He had spent several years in Greece when he was a young man, travelling across the country to visit theatres and bustling little towns. Dramatic people, the Greeks. They carved extraordinary statues that were so lifelike you expected to see them breathing. They built their temples with rows of decorative columns and perched them on hilltops so they could look out over the rocky plains and olive groves, with the wine-dark sea beyond. And the mountains… The stranger remembered swirling clouds and lightning flickering on the summit of Mount Olympus, throne of Zeus, king of the gods and ruler of the skies.
The scientist had been joined on the stage by a pair of assistants, young men in dark coats who ignored the audience and moved quietly. They were setting up a complicated apparatus that consisted of metal rods and balls and a number of glass containers. Meanwhile, the scientist had persuaded a young lady in the front row to part with her amber necklace which he then rubbed on a cloth so that it could be used to pick up small pieces of paper. There was some scattered applause.
“Surely this is not his demonstration?” whispered someone behind the stranger.
“Hush,” said another voice. “I imagine he’ll show us something on a far larger scale!”
The scientist’s assistants were carefully unpacking a ball that was mounted on an axle. It was yellow, and the stranger thought it might be sulfur. It was definitely not amber. He was familiar with amber from his years spent by the Baltic sea.
When storms swept the coasts and thunder rolled across the waves, little amber pieces would be cast ashore. Some looked like teardrops. People said they were the tears of the sea goddess. She wept for her dead lover, who had been struck down with a thunderbolt by her father Perkunas. There were so many skilled storytellers in that part of the world. In winter the people whiled away the dark evenings in front of the fire, singing and talking, and in summer, when the nights hardly darkened beyond dusk, there was laughter under the boughs of the ancient oaks. The stranger wondered what it would be like to visit those lands again. He hadn’t been there for many years. After his time along the windswept Baltic coast, he had travelled east through the endless forests and across the vast plains to distant lands. He spent many years in India, wandering from temple to temple to admire the stunningly detailed reliefs that showed how worship had changed over the centuries. Indra, the god of lightning, and the other forces of nature slowly gave way to other gods.
On stage, the scientist had shooed his assistants away.
“Consider, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “the vast powers of nature that lie hidden in a pendant of amber! After a simple manipulation it defies gravity! But this little parlour trick is only the first and most basic manifestation of a natural force, the great power of which has remained hidden from us except at rare moments. Think back, to the hot days of summer, those murky afternoons when the air is thick and oppressive and the very air seems to crackle. Think back, to how the wind swirls and kicks up dust as the dark clouds gather above.”
The stranger thought, but not of hot summer days. His thoughts were of icy, wind-blasted plateaus and cold fjords that mirrored the mountains that rose steeply from their depths. He thought of deep valleys and dark pine woods that crept up the hillsides and swallowed all warmth. He had thought at first that the people were the same, distant and secretive and cold, but it hadn’t taken him long to learn how wrong he was. There was always a place by their fire for a weary traveller, and they loved to listen to news from distant lands. He had told them what he knew, and in return they told stories of the god Thor, who created thunder and lightning as he rode across the skies in a chariot, swinging his hammer. It had always surprised the stranger how highly these people regarded their thunder god, given how few thunderstorms there were this far north. He supposed the rarity of the storms, and the ferocity when they did come, made them uniquely awe-inspiring.
The scientist had been busy at his apparatus. Handles had been turned to make the spheres rotate, with scraps of wool and silk against them. The glass flasks trembled. As the scientist touched various parts of his apparatus, his hair stood up in a great cloud.
“Behold!” he cried, striding across the stage, waving his arms. “Behold the power of nature! I have toiled for many years in my humble laboratory to harness a most mysterious force that gives lightning its power. I call it electricity!”
He brought his hands together slowly. When they were about a foot apart, lightning flashed between them with a crackle that made the audience gasp.
The stranger hummed to himself. Electricity! An interesting name. It was certainly very different from all the other names he had been called. But he supposed he could get used to it. It was a new world after all.