Saturday, 25 September 2004

Electric Universe – David Bodanis ****

We need to admit straight up that the four star rating is a bit of a fudge. This is both a three star book and a five star book!
If we had a category for teen readers it would make five stars. As an adult book, it would only get three. Outcome – the fudged four.
The book is about electricity in various different forms and manifestations, with all kinds of ventures off into interesting snippets and side alleys.
Why’s it a great teen book? Because it communicates great enthusiasm for the subject. It really does make an exciting, page turning read. It never dives into any technical complication, it brings in fascinating characters and the presentation is high energy all the way. In fact it’s a natural successor to the best of the Horrid Science books and the like that we recommend in our children’s section for up to thirteen/fourteen-year-olds.
Why the hesitation for adults? There have been too many compromises made in order to give it that oomph. It’s more like the taster provided by a TV show than a good popular science book – it’s just too shallow. That energy is conveyed in an exhausting barrage of superlatives and emphatic words. Electric current doesn’t flow, it rushes, roars, rampages and generally thunders along the wire. The same problem applies to the people – the biographical sketches lack the depth of characterisation we expect in an adult book. Sometimes the simplicity is revealing; at other times it’s misleading. For instance Edison is wholly credited with the electric light bulb with no mention of the fact that Swann’s getting there first was proved in court when Edison sued Swann for breach of patent and ended up having to give Swann half his company.
The book is divided into five main parts that portray electricity through wires (around telegraphs, telephone and mains electricity), waves (Faraday’s work and jokily back to the telegraph for under the waves in the amazing transatlantic cable), wireless “electricity” (i.e. electromagnetism, and specifically radar), computing and the transistor, and bioelectricity. Each of these parts has fascinating insights and revelations to intrigue. The radar section was particularly enticing in its portrayal of a remarkable raid on a German radar station to discover how their version of the technology worked.
Some concerns remain. Bodanis tells us that there was no electronics before the transistor (many pages later he mentions valves, but only as a half way house) – that’s verging on lying to make a point. Valves are electronic devices. What he really means is that electronics had to be solid state to change the world, but that’s not the same thing. And the emphasis given to the electric field, while useful to counteract its frequent absence from simple descriptions, goes too far in the way it totally dominates. These concerns are real, but shouldn’t obscure the fact that this is a superbly approachable book.
It’s great, then, for younger readers – but it could have retained the energy and enthusiasm for the teens while also appealing more to discerning adults if Bodanis hadn’t doubted the ability of his readers to cope with a little more depth.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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