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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lucy Jane Santos - Four Way Interview

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Why science?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of science especially our daily interactions with and understandings of science – especially in a beauty context. I could spend hours pondering the labels of things on my bathroom shelf. What is 4-t-butylcyclohexanol (as a random example)? Do I really understand what I am putting on my face and spending my money on? Would it change my purchase habits if I did?  

Why this book?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that there was a product called Tho Radia which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of it – along with a big batch of other produc…

Rewilding: Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe ****

Those who are enthusiastic about saving the environment often have a mixed relationship with science. They might for example, support organic farming or oppose nuclear power, despite organics having no nutritional benefit and requiring far more land to be used to raise the same amount of crops, while nuclear is a green energy source that should be seen as an essential support to renewables. This same confusion can extend to the concept of rewilding, which is one reason that the subtitle of this book uses the word 'radical'.

As Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe make clear, though, radical change is what is required if we are to encourage ecological recovery. To begin with, we need to provide environments for nature that take in the big picture - thinking not just of individual nature reserves but, for example, of corridors that link areas allowing safe species migration. And we also need to move away from an arbitrary approach to restricting to 'native' species, as sometimes…

Is Einstein Still Right? - Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes ***

If there's one thing that gets a touch tedious in science reporting it's the news headlines that some new observation or experiment 'proves Einstein right' - as if we're still not sure about relativity. At first glance that's what this book does too, but in reality Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes are celebrating the effectiveness of the general theory of relativity, while being conscious that there may still be situations where, for whatever reason, the general theory is not sufficient.

It's a genuinely interesting book - what Will and Yunes do is take experiments that are probably familiar to the regular popular science reader already and expand on the simplified view of them we are usually given. So, for example, one of the first things they mention is the tower experiments to show the effect of gravitational red shift. I was aware of these experiments, but what we get here goes beyond the basics of the conceptual experiment to deal with the realities of d…