Once or Twice Removed: Electrical Repulsion and Electromagnetism by Natalya Cowilich

Class: Science Writing

Major: Writing, Class of 2104

 According to the old American spiritual, “Your head bone is connected to your neck bone, your neck bone is connected to your shoulder bone, your shoulder bone is connected to your back bone . . .” but according to the theory of electrical repulsion, does any part of our body ever really touch the other parts at all? If physics has proven that atoms cannot actually collide, are we even a definitive human being, our consciousness, pancreas, and mid-afternoon pizza confined within one epidermis? Hydrogen bonds, covalent forces, and ionic bonds, a series of sharing and stealing electrons without any particles ever contacting, hold our external and internal environment together. If atoms cannot touch each other, then everything in the physical world that exists in conjunction with another physical object isn’t actually touching the other object. Furthermore, that physical object is not actually touching itself: it can’t be quite as solid as we perceive it is. We therefore live in a world of sensory experience where we are at least one time removed from reality, just by this law of nature.

Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell theorized electrical repulsion during the mid-nineteenth century. According to Maxwell, magnetism, light, and electricity are all linked under the idea of the electromagnetic field. Maxwell built largely upon an existing theory of electromagnetism called Coulomb’s law, a law describing the attraction and repulsion between electrically charged particles.[1] This attraction and repulsion holds our world together because electrically charged particles are drawn to each other yet cannot touch each other. Imagine taking  magnets from your refrigerator and trying to get them to touch each other. If you can feel them repel each other, that is what it feels like to be an electrically charged particle. You may be magnetized and compelled to another electrically charged particle, but you would feel the force of repulsion, like the magnets.

When Michael Phelps butterflies through chlorinated water, his skin never actually skims any of the water molecules because his atoms cannot come into direct contact with other atoms. When I grasp my coffee mug, I am holding the mug and imposing force upon the physical object, but I am not actually touching the object. My fingers, or the shape and force of my fingers, are only able to touch the space around the object that gives the little yellow mug its shape and definition. During a handshake, no one is ever actually touching the hand of someone else, but the space and shape of the atoms create the sensation of touch.

The implications of electrical repulsion are sobering. This could mean an incredibly lonely human experience, or an incredibly connected one. If we can never actually touch anyone else, then we are isolated beings. Yet, since nothing can touch anything else, maybe we aren’t actually the “whole” beings as we think we are, and in no way are we an entity to ourselves. We may not be able to actually touch anything or anyone else, but in the end, we aren’t even touching ourselves.

Communicating Through Touch Without Touching

            Despite the fact that nothing can actually touch anything else, haptic perception forms a central part of human communication and interaction, with many underlying implications involving the nature of touch itself. For example, touching patients recovering from cardiac disease reduces arousal and lowers anxiety in the inflicted person, helping them recover.[2] As a child grows and develops from birth, maternal touch creates and strengthens a bond between the mother and the child. During a study of primiparous mothers (mothers who have given birth once) and multiparous mothers (mothers who have given birth more than once), research was conducted to see if touch influenced the rate of ‘maternity blues,’ and results were clear:

Primiparous mothers with blues avoided all types of touch [with newborns] whereas multiparous mothers with blues provided firm touch and holding. All mothers [seventy-five mothers were part of the research] with blues avoided proprioceptive touch. Multiparous mothers without maternal blues provided various types of touch including affectionate holding and matter-of-fact touch whereas primiparous mothers without blues mostly provided holding.[3]

By experiencing what something feels like to our touch, we are, to a degree, shaping our reality and acknowledging the reality of others. We exchange information by touching each other, according to

A 2006 study by Matthew Hertenstein [that] demonstrated [how] strangers could accurately communicate the ‘universal’ emotions of anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, and sympathy, purely through touches to the forearm, but not the ‘prosocial’ emotions of surprise, happiness and sadness, nor the ‘self-focused’ emotions of embarrassment, envy and pride.[4]

Maybe we cannot communicate prosocial or self-focused emotions through touch because these feelings are not productive or helpful in reaching truth and wisdom—as it is said in Longinus’s “On Sublimity.” If it can’t be communicated through touch, perhaps it would be best to surrender self-focused feelings of envy or pride.

It is unfortunate that many cultures discourage touch, as it appears to be good for one’s psyche. Norine Dworkin-McDaniel in “Touching Makes You Healthier” explains,

 The act of embracing floods our bodies with oxytocin, a ‘bonding hormone’ that makes people feel secure and trusting toward each other, lowers cortisol levels, and reduces stress. Women who get more hugs from their partners have higher levels of oxytocin and lower blood pressure and heart rates, according to research done at the University of North Carolina.[5]

 So touch (or the illusion of touch, since nothing can actually touch anything) not only brings us together physically, but also unites us chemically and emotionally.

            If physics so assertively defends the idea that nothing can actually touch anything else, then how ironic is the ever-present rift between the sciences and the humanities? For how else am I to tell you about any aspect of quantum physics if not for language and words, or symbols removed from and only representing reality? Vincent Leitch, co-editor of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism says,

In our ordinary understanding, literature represents life; it holds up, as it were, a mirror to nature and is thus ‘mimetic.’ The expressive theory of literature, which regards literature as stemming from the author’s inner being, similarly depends on a notion of mirroring, though here literature reflects the inner soul rather than the external world of the writer.[6]

We step on the earth one step removed, and share the inner working of our minds through a reflection and never a direct image. What does this say about the nature of our existence? Even looking into the night sky, we can only ever see the past. The speed of light is 300,000 kilometers per second or 186,000 miles per second. The nearest star to us is the Sun, and just for its light to reach us here on Earth, it takes about 8.3 minutes.[7] We are beings, connected through disconnect: in touch, in science, and in literature.


1. Damian Audley, “Ask an Astrophysicist,” NASA’s Imagine the Universe, http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/ask_astro/answers/970710c.html.

2. S.J. Weiss, “Effects of Differential Touch on Nervous System Arousal of Patients Recovering from Cardiac Disease,” Heart & Lung: The Journal of Critical Care 19 (1990): 474-480.

3. Sari Goldstein Ferber, “The Nature of Touch in Mothers Experiencing Maternity Blues: The Contribution of Parity,” Early Human Development 79 (2004): 65-75.

4. J. Hampton and E. Thompson, “The Effect of Relationship Status on Communicating Emotions Through Touch,” Cognition and Emotion 25 (2011): 295-306.

5. Norine Dworkin-McDaniel, “Touching Makes You Healthier,” CNN Health, last updated January 5, 2011, http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/01/05/touching.makes.you.healthier.health/index.html.

6. Vincent B. Leitch, “Introduction to Theory and Criticism,” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010), 1-41.

7. Damian Audley, “Ask a Astrophysicist”.


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