Skip to main content

Wizard – Marc J. Seifer ****

I’ve given this biography of Nikola Tesla four stars to distinguish it from Tesla: Man Out of Time, as this is without doubt the better biography. Mark Seifer gives us much more detail than the earlier book, having access to better sources, and really makes it possible to understand the complex financial situation in the US in which Tesla was trying to finance his mind-boggling ideas. But there is still a big problem with this book.
Tesla wasn’t just a crackpot. One of the SI units is named after him – and for a good reason. He was a superb engineer and he single-handedly designed the AC system that we use today, including inventing the first serious AC motors, and the basis for practically every AC motor since. He also invented the fluorescent light (though never commercially developed it, as he had already moved onto his next excitement).
However, and it’s a big however, Tesla also was an over-the-top showman, who delighted in showing off by lighting up fancy bulbs with electricity that had been passed through his body – and, on the whole, he was nowhere near as good a scientist as an engineer.
Specifically, he rejected both relativity and quantum theory for decades after they were widely accepted in the scientific community, and he had a strange hangup about radio. He believed that the ‘Hertzian waves’ used by the likes of Marconi were a piffling use of electromagnetism for communication, and that instead it was possible to use ‘Tesla waves’ – mysterious longitudinal waves (compression waves like sound) he believed also exhibited by electromagnetism, and which he believed could be pumped through the Earth, using the Earth’s resonant frequency is such a way that amplitude grew with distance rather than falling off. With a big enough tower and enough electricity he believed he could communicate to the whole world at once – or distribute power wirelessly through the same mechanism.
He was also given to lavish over-exaggeration of his inventions. So, for instance, he developed the first radio controlled boat – an excellent invention. But he claimed that this would soon be extended to be able to act on its own, thinking for itself. He did not distinguish between remote control and AI-driven robots – a bizarre exaggeration.
Although the historical context is great, this book needs to be read carefully as Seifer frequently shows that he doesn’t understand the science Tesla was using (or claimed to be using). So, for example, Seifer refers to 25,000 volts being ‘[stepped] down to usable frequencies when they reached the exposition’, clearly confusing voltage and frequency. He tells us that ‘Electricity in its natural state is alternating,’ whatever that means. He tells us that John Herschel discovered Uranus (it was actually his father, William). Most remarkably, we hear that Tesla was capable of something that would shock modern physicists: ‘Tesla also appears to have come close to the idea of breaking up the electron into subatomic particles.’ It’s hard to know where to begin on how wrong that statement is.
Tesla was a fascinating, wonderful, wild character. But we need to distinguish his very real engineering genius from his scientific flights of fancy. This is the best of the book about him – but really we need a Tesla bio from someone who understand physics.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

The Ultimate Interplanetary Travel Guide - Jim Bell **

Not too long ago, NASA brought out a series of spoof ‘space tourism’ posters for various destinations in the Solar System. For people like me, who have watched NASA depressingly fail to send humans to the other planets for decade after decade, it was just another painful twist of the knife. On the other hand, the posters probably have more appeal for younger and less cynical minds, by presenting familiar astronomical objects in a new and engaging way. There may even be scope for a whole book along these lines – and that’s what Jim Bell has attempted here.

The main thing I learned from it is that my brain is programmed to read either fiction or non-fiction, and can’t handle a 50:50 mix of the two – which is what this book is. It drove me mad –  not least because I could see that the same material, presented as straight non-fiction, could have made a really excellent book. Using the NASA posters as a starting point, he could have enumerated the potential ‘tourist sights’ at each location…