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Electric Universe: The Shocking True Story of Electricity Hardcover – February 15, 2005

3.2 out of 5 stars 42 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Despite the fact that our lives are powered by electricity to an astonishing degree, most of us have little or no understanding of how or why it works. Instead, we rely on a blurry notion that it flows--like water--through wires to turn on our appliances. In Electric Universe, David Bodanis fools readers, by keeping them entertained and intrigued, into learning the science behind electricity. He does this by telling a series of stories, starting with how a backwoods American really invented the telegraph and how Samuel Morse stole the credit for it. From there, he works through the lives of Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Michael Faraday, and other pioneers. He shows how their experiments affected their lives--never more poignantly than with the tragic story of Alan Turing, whose early work designing computers wasn't enough to prevent him from being driven to suicide. It's surprisingly easy to identify with some of these brilliant scientists, because Bodanis relates their failures as well as their successes. In the end, although we may continue using words such as "current" to describe the "flow" of electrons, Bodanis makes certain that we see electrical energy for what it really is, at a subatomic, quantum level. Even so, there's not a single boring bit in the book. Electric Universe is an excellent scientific history, one that reveals both the progress of knowledge and the strange science of the wiggling electrons that run our lives. --Therese Littleton

From Publishers Weekly

This entertaining look at how electricity works and affects our daily lives is highlighted by Bodanis's charming narrative voice and by clever, fresh analogies that make difficult science accessible. Bodanis examines electricity's theoretical development and how 19th- and 20th-century entrepreneurs harnessed it to transform everyday existence. Going from "Wires" to "Waves" to computers and even the human body, Bodanis pairs electrical innovations with minibiographies of their developers, among them Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Guglielmo Marconi, Heinrich Herz and Alan Turing. In each case, Bodanis deepens his narrative by charting early failures—Edison's difficulty in finding a workable filament for the electric light bulb, for example—and financial struggles. And Bodanis can be a wry commentator on his subjects, noting, for example, how bedeviled Samuel Morse was by his telegraph patents—when the telegraph was actually invented by Joseph Henry, who refused to patent it. Surprisingly, Bodanis goes beyond the inorganic world of devices, delving deeply into the role electricity plays in the seemingly inhospitable "sloshing wet" human body, such as why being out in the cold makes us clumsy, or how alcohol works in the nervous system. Those who don't generally read science will find that Bodanis is a first-rate popularizer—as he also showed in his earlier E=MC2—able to keep a happy balance between technical explanation and accessibility.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; First Edition edition (February 15, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400045509
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400045501
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.2 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #644,263 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover

In this book author and former professor David Bodanis presents "the shocking true story of electricity." Actually this book is more about electrical devices through history and the scientists who created them. The electrical devices investigated are as follows: telegraph, telephone, light bulb, electric motor, radio, radar, and computer. Even human biological devices are looked into-specifically the nervous system and brain. Bodanis says this more eloquently:

"The world is made of electric charges and our technologies operate through electric charges, and even our brains are powered by electric charges."

The author does present some of the science behind electricity. (Electricity is a general term used for all phenomena caused by electric charge.) But he seems to concentrate only on DC or Direct Current (a term he never uses). (Direct Current is electric charge always flowing in the same direction.) Nothing (not one word!!) is said about the more important AC or Alternating Current and its colorful scientific history. This I feel was a major, major oversight. (Alternating Current is a flow of electric charge that periodically reverses its direction.)

Chapter 1 to chapter 6 of this 12-chapter book presents the scientific history of direct current. I feel Bodanis does a decent job here with his explanations and portraits of major scientists. In fact, I feel that his writing style is very engaging throughout the book.

The next two chapters discuss radar. Unfortunately, the author goes into way too much detail about the war effort and strays significantly off topic. I feel all this information was not needed.
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Format: Hardcover
I read E = mc2 by David Bodanis and was thouroughly impressed with the book from cover to cover. This was a truly enjoyable and imformative treatment of the subject.

On the basis of my most favotable impression of E = mc2 I was eager to engross myself in Electric Universe. After the second chapter I bacame confused about the intent of this new Bodanis book. Is Electric Universe a history? Is it a science book dealing with biographies? Is the intent to scientifically explain the development of electricity? Electric Universe fails in all these purposes.

The author makes no distinction between scienctfic discoveries and technological advances. Perhaps mixing of the two is appropriate in a general book such as this, but somehow distinctions between the two must be made. An entire chapter is devoted to Edison and the development of electric motors and the light bulb. Yet, in regard to J.J. Thomson, he writes, "The quietly bumbling JJ ....". Every chemistry and physics book that I know of gives credit to J.J. Thomson for making his important discovery. Yet, in Bodanis' opinion, Thomson's discovery of the electron is considered to be a bumbling accident.

The discoveries of Hans Christian Oersted and Michael Faraday go together like hand and glove. The consideration of both Oersted and Faraday to explain that magnetism and electricity are two aspects of the same force is indeed basic. Yet, Bodanis does not mention Oersted. Is this because his biography is not spiced with the unusual?

The powerful electric motors, described in the chapter giving praise to Edison, utilized DC current which was problematic if the use of electricity was to become widespread over great distances.
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Format: Hardcover
In Electric Universe, David Bodanis attempts to tell the "true story of electricity." This might have been a worthy effort were it not for his incredible ignorance of basic electrical theory. Time and again, he attempts to enlighten the reader with clever analogies to explain the behavior of electricity. More often than not, he only succeeds in displaying his inability to grasp the central concepts he is struggling to elucidate.

The examples are too numerous to list here, but a few examples will give you a taste:

On page 37,in attempting to explain a telephone receiver, he states that a strong electric current causes the diaphragm to move quickly while a weak current causes it to move slowly. This misses the more important point that it is moving faster because it moves further in response to a greater current.

On page 46, he implies that the reason Edison's light bulbs retained their vacuum was because of how tightly the bases were attched to the bulbs. Anyone who has ever detached a bulb from its base know that it is the sealed glass envelope which prevents air from entering.

Page 52 tells us that the darkening inside a light bulb is caused by the electrons streaming off the filament "etching" the glass. In fact, it is the deposition of metal ions from the filament that causes this.

He tells us on page 84 that the warnings given about not touching the parts of de-energized equipment (like the high-voltage section of a TV) is due to static buildup on the metal parts. He doesn't seem to know what a capacitor or capacitance is. Which, by the way, explains why he informs us on page 88 that Napolean's favoring of Volta is why we measure electrical potential in volts rather than "faradays.
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