Skip to main content

Magnetism: a very short introduction – Stephen J. Blundell *****

When a writer friend of mine saw I was reading an introduction to magnetism, he quipped, 'What attracted you to this book?'

Joking aside, it’s a fair question. In popular science, and physics in particular, one doesn’t tend to think of magnetism as a particularly 'sexy' subject, lacking the instant appeal of, say, unification theories, quantum physics, relativity or the study of exotic astronomical objects. Blundell proves that this perception is completely misplaced.

Not only is Blundell’s book an excellent primer on magnetism, but in many ways it’s also a model on how to write popular science, because Blundell uses one branch of science to illuminate countless others. Magnetism underlies so many phenomena in the Universe that we actually get discussions of unification, quantum mechanics, relativity and pulsars - in addition to much else, besides, like the magnetite and maghemite in the beaks of homing pigeons, for example, or how Thomas Edison lost the AC/DC war.

One of my favorite approaches to popular science is the historical one, and that’s Blundell’s strategy here, at least in the first five or six chapters (which is where it makes sense). He begins with the theories of the ancient Greeks and other early notions, then moves on to the work of William Gilbert, who was the first to emphasize an experimental approach to the study of magnetism, and to realize that the Earth itself is magnet.

Other discoveries and theoretical developments covered are those by Galvani, Volta, Oersted, Ampere, Faraday, Tesla, Maxwell, Curie, Einstein, and so on. Part of this book’s joy is that even when dealing with well-known scientists, Blundell makes the material fresh by offering plenty of quotes. Hearing these great minds speak to us directly across the ages is a powerful and succinct way of helping to illuminate their personalities, adding a human dimension to the enterprise.

In the latter chapters, as topics become more modern and specialized, Blundell covers each in its context, providing just the right amount of information that’s needed to follow along. These sections cover spin, how magnetism is the key behind storage devices like hard drives, the magnetic fields of the Earth and other stars, as well as more exotic ideas like magnetic monopoles.

From the opening page, Blundell’s style is charming. He writes accessibly, regardless of the subject matter’s difficulty. I also appreciate Blundell’s lack of patience for pseudo-science and charlatanism, of which there’s been plenty (and, unfortunately, there continues to be) in the history of magnetism. 

Another element I found appealing is Blundell’s inclusion of a broad range of cultural references not directly related to science, from Handel’s Water Music (Benjamin Franklin once heard this piece performed on tuned wine glasses, and it led him to invent a new musical instrument) to the Death Star in Star Wars (which uses a tractor beam of magnet-like properties to lure in the Millennium Falcon). Blundell is also quite witty, from jests about frogs in your iPhone (because of experiments performed by Alessandro Volta, for a time it was believed that frogs were a source of electrical power) to puns about high-temperature superconductivity being a 'hot topic' in physics.

In short, his writing is fun, compelling, delightful. He’s also clearly an expert on magnetism, and his knowledge not only on the underlying theory, but its historical development, is truly impressive. I eagerly look forward to his next book. 


Paperback 

Kindle 
Review by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Superior - Angela Saini *****

It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinct…

Artificial Intelligence - Yorick Wilks ****

Artificial intelligence is one of those topics where it's very easy to spin off into speculation, whether it's about machine conciousness or AI taking over the world (and don't get me onto the relatively rare connection to robots - cover designer please note). All the experience of AI to date has been that it has been made feasible far slower than originally predicted, and that it faces dramatic limitations. So, for example, self-driving cars may be okay in limited circumstances, but are nowhere near ready for the commute home. Similarly, despite all the moves forward in AI technology, computers are so-so at recognising objects after learning from thousands of examples - sometimes fooled by apparently trivial surface patterning - where humans can recognise items from a handful of examples.

Even so, we can't deny that AI is having an influence on our lives and Yorick Wilks, emeritus professor of AI at the University of Sheffield, is ideally placed to give us a picture …

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …