Skip to main content

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…