Skip to main content

Tesla: Man out of Time – Margaret Cheney ***

It’s hard to imagine a better subject for a scientific biography than Nikola Tesla. You only have to take in the cameo appearance of Tesla as a character in the movie The Prestige – the sense of mystery, the weird electrical experiments, the larger-than-life character… and yet someone who simply doesn’t register on the modern mind the way, for instance, Edison still does.
This biography of Tesla is strong on his emotional life (as much as can be known – very little seems to be sure about him), his involvement in the New York social scene at the start of the 20th century and his strange mix of master engineer and showman. What seems quite remarkable to modern eyes is that financially Tesla’s fortunes were often rather low, yet he continued as much as possible to live the high life, expecting the hotels he spent his life in to provide 14 napkins per meal and to put up with his habit of bringing stray pigeons into his room.
Unfortunately, where Margaret Cheney struggles is the science. She makes several remarks that make it plain she doesn’t understand a lot of it herself, and that makes it very difficult for her to put Tesla’s contribution into a properly balanced context. For instance, he was a pioneer of radio controlled vehicles, arguing correctly as we now see with drones etc. that they would play a significant part in the future of warfare. But Cheney equates radio control with robotics (or as she quaintly puts it ‘robotry’) – which suggest she doesn’t know a lot about it. Things get even worse when we get to physics, where her terminology is positively Victorian (she refers to a ‘pressure’ of n million volts) and her grasp of what’s going on with electromagnetics is shaky.
Oddly enough, this rather neatly reflects Tesla himself. There is no doubt the man was a genius as an engineer – his invention of AC motors and a whole host of other inventions puts him in the same league as Edison. But in many ways he was a very poor scientist. He never accepted, amongst other things, relativity, quantum theory or even that light and radio were the same thing, electromagnetic radiation propagating without a medium. His wildly impressive looking attempts at worldwide communication seemed based not on how radio actually works, but on an idea that radio was propagated by a vibration in the earth, triggered by electrical discharges. Cheney’s inability to understand physics makes her unable to see how wrong this was.
There is also one historical oddity. There was a contemporary rumour that Tesla and Edison had won the 1915 Nobel Prize for physics, which in fact went to the Braggs. Cheney suggest that the pair were in line for the prize before something changed the committee’s mind – but this seems highly unlikely. Neither Tesla nor Edison were physicists, and the Nobel prize isn’t about being a great inventor.
The other flaw in Cheney’s approach is that she can’t see what seems obvious reading between the lines of what she writes – that though Tesla was a genius as an engineer, he was a fantasist who was always saying he was able to do something (wireless distribution of power, death rays, flying machines without wings) that had no basis on fact. The way he presented information in such a flashy but secretive way, always making vague assertions, never explaining anything makes this pretty clear. He comes across in this as a huckster rather than a great man. Cheney seems surprised that a box in his hotel room he told everyone contained a deadly secret had nothing of significance in it. This seems typical of what had come before.
I am still fascinated by Tesla, and want to find out more about him, but this isn’t the book to give a good picture of his science and technology. Something of a fail, I’m afraid. (See Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age for a better scientific biography.)

Paperback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Artificial Intelligence - Melanie Mitchell *****

As Melanie Mitchell makes plain, humans have limitations in their visual abilities, typified by optical illusions, but artificial intelligence (AI) struggles at a much deeper level with recognising what's going on in images. Similarly in some ways, the visual appearance of this book misleads. It's worryingly fat and bears the ascetic light blue cover of the Pelican series, which since my childhood have been markers of books that were worthy but have rarely been readable. This, however, is an excellent book, giving a clear picture of how many AI systems go about their business and the huge problems designers of such systems face.

Not only does Mitchell explain the main approaches clearly, her account is readable and engaging. I read a lot of popular science books, and it's rare that I keep wanting to go back to one when I'm not scheduled to be reading it - this is one of those rare examples.

We discover how AI researchers have achieved the apparently remarkable abiliti…

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

Colin Stuart - Four Way Interview

Colin Stuart is an astronomy journalist, author and science communicator. He has written fourteen science books to date, which have been translated into nineteen languages, including 13 Journeys Through Space and Time: Christmas Lectures From the Royal Institution and The Universe in Bite-sized Chunks both published by Michael O’Mara Books. He also has written for the Guardian, the European Space Agency and New Scientist and has spoken on Sky News, BBC News and Radio 5 Live. He is a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and even has an asteroid named after him. His latest title is Rebel Star: our quest to solve the great mysteries of the Sun.

Why science? 

For me the stories that you can tell with modern science rival the most imaginative leaps in fiction. The secret, invisible kingdoms of bacteria and sub-atomic particles. The logic defying realms of black holes and Big Bangs. That excites me more than Hogwarts or Mordor. The universe is an amazing place and we’ve only just scratche…