Skip to main content

Tesla, inventor of the electrical age – W. Bernard Carlson ****

I’ve reviewed two biographies of the engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla: Man out of Time (which is good on Tesla’s odd behaviour but struggles with the science) and Wizard (which is a more rounded book, but is totally lost in the science, telling us that Telsa was close to splitting the electron). This is definitely the best of the three. Certainly it is far better on the aspects of Tesla’s work that are worthwhile – his engineering genius in working on AC motors and polyphase AC, giving comprehensive details of his designs and work.
There is also plenty on his long obsession with transmitting information and electrical energy remotely, culminating in the remarkable Wardenclyffe development with its iconic discharge tower, which ruined him financially and proved his downfall when he was unable to deliver on his promises to be able to span the Atlantic in six months to financier J. P. Morgan. By contrast, though, some of his more wild schemes and his social oddities are only discussed in passing – Carlson hints at the possibility that Tesla was homosexual, which would have been controversial in his day, but hardly mentions his strange eating habits and pigeon-befriending activities. I’m not sure the balance is quite right. This is after, after all a biography, and we  get a rather sketchy picture of Tesla, the man. It may be because Carlson struggles with that side of biography – we hear, for instance, the strangely childlike line that his father died because he was heartbroken. But any shortcomings on the personal front are more than made up for by the exquisite detail on the engineering achievements.
There was one other aspect I was uncomfortable with, which was that Carlson seemed to find it difficult to admit when Tesla was wrong. The facts seem to be that Tesla was a brilliant engineer, but only a so-so scientist. It’s not an unusual combination, and Tesla often managed to develop technology by trial and error without understanding the underlying physics. Specifically he had a poor grasp of the nature of electromagnetic radiation, leading to his odd ideas of being able to transmit electrical energy as a form of vibration through the Earth. While Carlson makes it clear Tesla didn’t succeed he avoids saying that Tesla failed to understand the science, using phrases like ‘raises questions about its feasibility’ in a situation that demands ‘it was just never going to work.’ There is also reasonable evidence that many of Teslas promises of being able to develop technology were nothing more than evasions to put off his creditors or pure fantasy – again Tesla gets too much benefit of the doubt.
Overall, though this is an enjoyable biography of Tesla, concentrating in detail on his engineering achievements and business arrangements, even though it could have been firmer on the unscientific nature of some of Tesla’s ideas.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Audio CD:  
Audio download:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…