He was, he said in a memoir, “Witness to Grace” (2008), the unwanted child of an agnostic Yale University professor of religion and a mother with whom he never bonded. Friendless except for three siblings, a family dog and a maid, he grew up lonely and dyslexic in an emotionally distant household. He was sent to a private boarding school at 12 and rarely heard from his parents.

With patience, counseling and intense struggles for self-improvement, he overcame his reading disabilities. He studied Latin and Greek at Groton and mastered mathematics at Yale, meteorology in the Army Air Forces during World War II, and physics under Clarence Zener, Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago, where he earned a doctorate in 1952.

At M.I.T.’s Lincoln Laboratory in the 1950s and ’60s, he was a member of teams that helped lay the groundwork for random access memory (RAM) in computers and developed plans for the nation’s first air defense system. In 1976, as federal funding for his M.I.T. work ended, he moved to Oxford to teach and manage a chemistry lab, where he began his research on batteries.

Essentially, a battery is a device that makes electrically charged atoms, known as ions, move from one side to another, creating an electrical current that powers anything hooked up to the battery. The two sides, called electrodes, hold charges — a negative one called an anode, and a positive one called a cathode. The medium between them, through which the ions travel, is an electrolyte.

When a battery releases energy, positively charged ions shuttle from the anode to the cathode, creating a current. A rechargeable battery is plugged into a socket to draw electricity, forcing the ions to shuttle back to the anode, where they are stored until needed again. Materials used for the anode, cathode and electrolyte determine the quantity and speed of the ions, and thus the battery’s power.


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