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Congaree River Bridge
1610 Golf Course Rd (Street View)
Columbia, SC

The art of gathering earthworms has survived into the twenty-first century as a competitive sport. “Worm charming,” or “worm grunting,” as it has come to be known, encompasses a variety of techniques intended to produce vibrations in the soil (believed, presently, to work because it simulates the presence of nearby chthonic predators like moles). Competitors gather in towns like Sopchoppy, FL to tapdance, scrape iron against stob, and beat songs into the world to call forth wriggling messes of subterranean life.

In parallel, American fishermen have learned how to set up electrical contraptions that achieve the same effect. A car battery and power inverter will do, as will a standard plug without its ground: whenever a strong-enough current is directed into the world, earthworms are conjured upward en masse, then sold in lakeside bait shops for five dollars a dozen.

Knowledge of this latter technique is older than one might expect. After Luigi Galvani’s experiments reanimating frog corpses in the late eighteenth century, his former student Giacomo Lumbrici took it upon himself to defend his teacher’s theory of animal electricity from the relentless criticism of Alessandro Volta. In 1803, observing the tendency for earthworms to emerge from soil after thunderstorms, Lumbrici plugged an early electrochemical battery into the alluvial soils of Northern Italy, and found that indeed, earthworms spontaneously emerged within minutes. When his results were reproduced thereafter in different soils and climes, he knew that he was onto something.

The scientist’s bombasticism got the better of him, however, and he declared his observations to be definitive evidence of a startling and radical conclusion: that earthworms themselves were simply electrified mud, and further, that in producing his own, he had discovered the mechanism by which God had first sculpted man during Genesis. In a series of increasingly outlandish letters seeking Volta’s attention and rivalry, Lumbrici claimed that he was ready to demonstrate the production of more complex forms of life than mere annelids, and was collaborating with local butchers and barbers in an attempt to craft his own homunculi, a feat previously attempted by alchemists like Paracelsus.

Lumbrici’s work did not have a lasting impact on scientific progress (in fact, it probably hurt: on account of work like his, and that of Franz Mesmer, animal electricity was largely rejected as fringe science until Nobilis’ results in 1828), but it did, at least, influence scientific language: the order Lumbricidae, encompassing all earthworms, is named in honor of his fanaticism. Most delightfully, petrichor (etymologically, “blood from stone”), the term for the perfume that fills the air after a thunderstorm, was coined in Nature in 1964 as a direct result of Lumbrici’s conviction that it was, in fact, the breath of life itself emerging from the Earth sublimely. While Galvani and Volta have scientific units and processes named for them, neither’s work was immortalized as anything quite so lexically poetic.

The endeavor to create life by running electrical currents through stone continues in modern attempts to produce intelligence in computers. Following in the footsteps of Lumbrici, researchers developing what they consider to be “AI” continue to see a semblance between their ambitions in their work, and, through the Turing Test, measure their success by how much it resembles success. Though critiques of this benchmarking methodology play out in “Chinese Room” debates that resonate throughout computer science and philosophy departments globally, there is a very primordial problem that prevents identifying a better metric: the absence of an understanding of what intelligent life actually is makes it impossible to reproduce in any manner that is not already instinctual.

The art of silicon charming has yet to produce its first worm. Given precedent, it is questionable whether or not its practitioners would know the breath of life if they inhaled it themselves.