Skip to main content

Signor Marconi’s Magic Box – Gavin Weightman *****

Wireless communication is much more romantic than pumping information down a cable. There’s still something exciting about being able to access the internet from a wireless connection – and an even stronger thrill was felt towards the end of the nineteenth century when the shackles of wired telegraphy were removed to allow messages to fly through the ether thanks to Marconi’s work on radio.
All too rare in a popular science book, Gavin Weightman’s Signor Marconi’s Magic Box is a real page turner. It has all the right ingredients to become a Hollywood blockbuster. The young, dynamic Marconi, taking everyone by surprise both in his debonair looks and his command of English (though an Italian, Marconi had an Irish mother and did all his significant work in the UK and the USA). Then there’s the awesome impact of the new technology. The race to conquer huge technical barriers like getting a signal across the Atlantic. The fraudulent and dirty dealing companies that set up to make money out of the wireless boom without the capability of producing decent radio signals. And even a spot of love interest.
If you wanted to be really picky, there’s not a lot of science in the book – the story is driven by pure technology – but having said that, it’s almost a triumph of technology over the scientific knowledge of the day. From what everyone “knew” about “Hertzian waves”, the name at the time for radio waves, they should only be capable of transmission over a mile or two – yet Marconi was soon reaching a hundred and then thousands of miles, with the theory struggling to catch up with the reality that his experimental genius achieved.
What makes the book difficult to put down is the powerful draw of a race. This wasn’t a case of a sole inventor, tinkering away in his workshop. Many others were struggling to get wireless communication working, and Marconi knew it was only a matter of time before some other concern eclipsed his, putting immense pressure on him to achieve in a tight timescale. Though the earliest competitors missed the point, and tried to challenge his patents with devices that used induction to generate a current at the distance of a few yards, Marconi was under no illusion that he had the field to himself, and triumphed thanks to a combination of drive and personal initiative that would have made him a natural for Silicon Valley had he lived in the late twentieth century.
There is one slight moan. Michael Faraday is described as a chemist. Given that all the other remarks about Faraday concern his electrical and electromagnetic work, this seems an odd label. Faraday did make important contributions to chemistry, but it’s surely as a physical scientist that he is remembered.
However this is without doubt a book to treasure on a key development in the history of technology. Until recently Marconi was a well-known name, but as the companies he founded have all but disappeared, so too does Marconi himself fade away in the public consciousness – it’s a good thing this book is hear to keep his name alive.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…