Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Tesla: Man out of Time – Margaret Cheney ***

It’s hard to imagine a better subject for a scientific biography than Nikola Tesla. You only have to take in the cameo appearance of Tesla as a character in the movie The Prestige – the sense of mystery, the weird electrical experiments, the larger-than-life character… and yet someone who simply doesn’t register on the modern mind the way, for instance, Edison still does.
This biography of Tesla is strong on his emotional life (as much as can be known – very little seems to be sure about him), his involvement in the New York social scene at the start of the 20th century and his strange mix of master engineer and showman. What seems quite remarkable to modern eyes is that financially Tesla’s fortunes were often rather low, yet he continued as much as possible to live the high life, expecting the hotels he spent his life in to provide 14 napkins per meal and to put up with his habit of bringing stray pigeons into his room.
Unfortunately, where Margaret Cheney struggles is the science. She makes several remarks that make it plain she doesn’t understand a lot of it herself, and that makes it very difficult for her to put Tesla’s contribution into a properly balanced context. For instance, he was a pioneer of radio controlled vehicles, arguing correctly as we now see with drones etc. that they would play a significant part in the future of warfare. But Cheney equates radio control with robotics (or as she quaintly puts it ‘robotry’) – which suggest she doesn’t know a lot about it. Things get even worse when we get to physics, where her terminology is positively Victorian (she refers to a ‘pressure’ of n million volts) and her grasp of what’s going on with electromagnetics is shaky.
Oddly enough, this rather neatly reflects Tesla himself. There is no doubt the man was a genius as an engineer – his invention of AC motors and a whole host of other inventions puts him in the same league as Edison. But in many ways he was a very poor scientist. He never accepted, amongst other things, relativity, quantum theory or even that light and radio were the same thing, electromagnetic radiation propagating without a medium. His wildly impressive looking attempts at worldwide communication seemed based not on how radio actually works, but on an idea that radio was propagated by a vibration in the earth, triggered by electrical discharges. Cheney’s inability to understand physics makes her unable to see how wrong this was.
There is also one historical oddity. There was a contemporary rumour that Tesla and Edison had won the 1915 Nobel Prize for physics, which in fact went to the Braggs. Cheney suggest that the pair were in line for the prize before something changed the committee’s mind – but this seems highly unlikely. Neither Tesla nor Edison were physicists, and the Nobel prize isn’t about being a great inventor.
The other flaw in Cheney’s approach is that she can’t see what seems obvious reading between the lines of what she writes – that though Tesla was a genius as an engineer, he was a fantasist who was always saying he was able to do something (wireless distribution of power, death rays, flying machines without wings) that had no basis on fact. The way he presented information in such a flashy but secretive way, always making vague assertions, never explaining anything makes this pretty clear. He comes across in this as a huckster rather than a great man. Cheney seems surprised that a box in his hotel room he told everyone contained a deadly secret had nothing of significance in it. This seems typical of what had come before.
I am still fascinated by Tesla, and want to find out more about him, but this isn’t the book to give a good picture of his science and technology. Something of a fail, I’m afraid. (See Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age for a better scientific biography.)
Review by Brian Clegg

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