Skip to main content

Nikola Tesla and the Electric Future - Iwan Rhys Morus ****

Nikola Tesla divides the world into three. Those who haven't a clue who he was, those who think he was a genius scientist, thwarted by the industrial/military complex, and those who think he was a brilliant electrical engineer who became a fantasist as he got older.

Presumably because it makes the best story, existing biographies of Tesla tend to support the second viewpoint: they lap up every fantastical suggestion Tesla made and give examples of what were nothing more than science fiction as an example of his 'ahead of his time' genius. So, for example, they claim he invented the mobile phone, because he said his (totally unworkable) project for transmitting energy through the Earth would mean you could have a device in your pocket that enabled communication anywhere in the world. This is a bit like saying Cyrano de Bergerac invented the Apollo space vehicles because he said you could get into space using rockets.

Compared with earlier biographers, Iran Rhys Morus strikes a good balance, recognising Tesla's exception ability in electrical engineering, yet making it clear just how unlikely many of his later claims were. As a historian of science, Morus gives us lots of material on the work that was going on at the same time, putting what Tesla did into context, whether it's coverage of other inventors of the period such as Edison, or on the development of the new electrically-based world that Tesla played a part in.

For this reason, I have given the book four stars - it is, without doubt, the best of the bunch at assessing Tesla's technological achievements and putting them into context. However, there is also a significant problem here. This isn't a biography at all, it's a history book. Morus gives us so much context that you can go several pages at a time without Telsa being mentioned at all. We really find out nothing about Tesla, the man. There's no mention, for example, of his strange behaviours and habits, from hosting pigeons in his hotel room to his food obsessions. There is nothing about his relations with other people or his infamous 'death ray in a box' that turned out to be a Wheatstone bridge. Whole swathes of his inventions are missed, from the vibrating platform to the disc-based pump. And there's little about how Tesla seems to have misunderstood much of the physics of the day.

To be honest, at times this lack of focus on Tesla makes the book a little dull. Don't get me wrong - I have given Nikola Tesla and the Electric Future four stars because it is, without doubt, an excellent history of the part of the electrical revolution that Tesla was involved in. But it isn't the biography I hoped for that combined accurate history, good understanding of the science and a thorough exploration of Tesla himself. We're still waiting for that.

Review by Brian Clegg 


Popular posts from this blog

The Hidden Half - Michael Blastland *****

Michael Blastland is co-author of one of my favourite titles on the use and misuse of numbers, The Tiger that Isn't - so I was excited to see this book and wasn't disappointed.

Blastland opens with the story of a parthenogenic crustacean that seems to demonstrate that, despite having near-identical nature and nurture, a collection of the animals vary hugely in size, length of life and practically every other measure. This is used to introduce us to the idea that our science deals effectively with the easy bit, the 'half' that is accessible, but that in many circumstances there is a hidden half that comprises a whole range of very small factors which collectively can have a huge impact, but which are pretty much impossible to predict or account for. (I put 'half' in inverted commas as it might be fairer to say 'part' - there's no suggestion that this is exactly 50:50.)

We go on to discover this hidden half turning up in all kinds of applications of …

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 …

Bloom - Ruth Kassinger ***

There is much fascinating material in this chunky book by Ruth Kassinger. It may be my total ignorance of biology and everyone else knows these things, but I learnt so much - for example that seaweed is algae and not a plant, about algae's role in the development of land plants, about the algae in lichen and its contribution to coral reefs.

The book is divided into four broad sections: on the origins and development of algae, on algae (and particularly seaweed) as food, on making use of algae, for example, for biofuel, and on algae and climate change, particularly the bleaching of coral and algal blooms. This is all done in a very approachable writing style, mixing descriptive material that is never over-technical with narrative often featuring visits to different locations and to talk to a range of experts from those who study to algae to those who cook them.

There are two problems though. Firstly, the book is too long at 380 pages. Each section could do with a trim, but this wa…