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.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…