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March 13, 2006 | by  | in Books | [ssba]

Electric Universe

This book is about electricity. Woo-hoo! I hear you shout. But your sarcasm is uncalled for. This is a good read, both more educational and more entertaining than the last few novels I’ve read.

Even though I’ve forgotten most of what David Bodanis taught me, I’m still a lot more knowledgeable about electricity than I was. I bet you don’t know exactly what it is (unless you’re a physics major) other than vague ideas about dangerous stuff that runs down wires. It’s so much more than that!

Take electro-magnetic fields, for instance. I never knew how important, and strange, they were. This weird force is just as important to the actual electrons as the sea is to fish.

Our brains send out electrical waves. If the wavelengths were shorter, we could pick up brainwaves on radio or TV. Wouldn’t that be neat? But instead, they beam harmlessly out into space.

Nerves are really interesting, too. I didn’t know that before. Nerves need sodium, to carry electricity. So salt is like copper wiring for our brains! Fascinating.

There’s even a World War II bit, with firefights and code words and British generals with slippers and pipes speaking tosh.

While reading, I often had to restrain myself from boring those around me by reading bits out (note from girlfriend: “he didn’t always manage to restrain himself, and I doubt we’ve heard the end of how cool nerves are, sigh.”) It’s that sort of book.

So it definitely succeeds in its science-educational mission. What gives it novelistic excitement is the care Bodanis takes in matching each stage of scientific discovery with a character. The scientists and inventors who have progressed our understanding and use of electricity make for a great cast of characters. There’s Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone to impress his deaf girlfriend’s disapproving parents; Samuel Morse, who stole and patented the idea for the telegraph, then spent his millions running for Mayor of New York on an anti-Catholic policy platform; Charles W Cox, puny radio enthusiast turned radar hero; and tragic gay computer genius Alan Turing.

Electric Universe races through the history of electricity without getting bogged down. It’s quite a small book, but very worthwhile if you’re interested in picking up and storing away useful information.

David bodanis


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