Thursday, 8 December 2011

Rising Force – James D. Livingston ****

James Livingston examines the various uses of magnetic levitation in modern technology, from medicine to the production of nuclear weapons, having first considered the historic fascination people have had with levitation, and the basics of gravity and electromagnetism.
As well as covering the science of magnetic levitation (which includes us gradually being able to reduce the number of supports needed to keep an object ‘up there’ and to keep it from being displaced in any direction), there’s much more. We have biographical information on some of the key players in the development of the science of maglev, fascinating stories of bitter copyright feuds between makers of maglev toys, and humorous examples of maglev products whose sales have failed to get off the ground (sorry) – there’s the levitating bed, for instance, which, costing thousands, has yet to have one buyer.
I must admit to having some concerns when starting the book about whether the topic of maglev could keep me interested for 250 pages. Because of the deviations mentioned above, however, and the gentle, easy to follow way in which the book is written, it kept my attention throughout.
The most interesting section, that which the book builds up to, is the one on maglev trains. (And given that I read much of this book whilst on a slow, bumpy train journey, the notion of high-speed, frictionless travel felt particularly exciting.) The science behind the trains is a little more complicated than I had previously believed. It’s unlikely you’ll be travelling on one soon, however. There are a limited number around and, unfortunately, as the book explains, many plans around the world for maglev trains to be rolled out have ultimately gone nowhere.
There are concerns over safety (largely unwarranted, the author suggests), but mainly the problems is cost, meaning that, though we have the technology, most high-speed trains rolled out in the next few years will still run on rails. The scrapping of two projects in Germany seemed particularly disappointing, for instance. Both cases reminded me of, and seemed similar to, what happened to the Superconducting Super Collider planned for Texas, cancelled in 2003. After so much effort and money spent on the project, in the end the plans went nowhere.
I can easily recommend this title, then. It’s a good insight into an aspect of much of modern technology, with enough surrounding material to keep it entertaining to read.
Hardback:  
Review by Matt Chorley

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