When it comes to matters of science, business and politics, can a work of fiction reveal more truth than a pile of stodgy textbooks and wonky policy journals? If the work is Graham Moore’s latest novel, The Last Days of Night, I believe it can.
This semester, I have the privilege of leading the teaching team behind IGERT 720: Public Energy Policy, a graduate course offered through the University of South Carolina’s College of Engineering and Computing.
Our students are 12 of the brightest scientific minds in the fields of chemistry and chemical engineering, and the course is designed to show them how their research will be cussed, discussed, analyzed, debated—sometimes mocked and often misinterpreted—but ultimately forged into the laws, regulations and business models that govern utilities and the energy sector.
The goal is to show these scientists how their precise reasoning can survive in the rough-and-tumble world outside the laboratory. The emphasis is on the creation of sound energy policy through collaboration and consensus-building, even when (make that especially when) the facts and scientific conclusions are matters of fierce debate.
I imagine the students were surprised to find The Last Days of Night listed as the primary text for the class. Although it’s a dramatized work classified as fiction, the novel is based on the very real facts of the high-stakes battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over how electricity would be distributed in the United States.
In the late 1800s, Edison was the driving force behind power-distribution networks using direct current (DC), while Westinghouse and eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla were developing and promoting the use of alternating current (AC) as a potentially more efficient way of transmitting electricity over long distances.
AC or DC? The decision would reshape the world, and the battle that ensued was vicious. Moore’s skillful storytelling transports readers to the laboratories, courtrooms, boardrooms and public squares where the fight raged until AC ultimately won out.
As with any good novel, there’s more than just the basic plot. Graham also explores the nature of invention and the creative process with a cast of famous supporting characters, including Wall Street baron J.P. Morgan and Alexander Graham Bell. More to the point of our class, the narrator of the events is another real person, attorney Paul Cravath, who represented Westinghouse in a slew of lawsuits filed by Edison.
Ultimately, it was Cravath who served as an honest broker—the one man who realized the unique vested interests that drove Westinghouse, Tesla and Edison—and found a way to forge a consensus that left each man a winner where it mattered most. This consensus ultimately led to widespread adoption of the AC power systems and appliances we still use today.
Proving that invention and creation require a cast of talents, Moore offers this tribute to each of the men: “Only together could they have birthed the system that was now the bone and sinew of these United States. No one man could have done it. In order to produce such a wonder … the world required … visionaries like Tesla. Craftsmen like Westinghouse. Salesmen like Edison.”
Based on their insightful responses to the book and our own consensus-building exercises in class, I am assured that the scientists in IGERT 720 are internalizing the message contained in The Last Days of Night, and I am confident that, when faced with their own battles over science and policy, they will be the leaders we need to forge a brighter energy future.