Monday, 24 March 2014

An extraordinary mind, a tragic life in Tesla

From The Week of March 17, 2014

There's an element of madness in innovation, a capacity to seize the unknown that is foreign to the rest of us. We are born in established worlds, baked into environments that have been shaped by centuries of tradition and generations of experience. And so it is no surprise that our tastes, even our thoughts, are influenced by customs we cannot ignore. Not so for the visionaries in our midst who are, in some fundamental way, immune to the transmission of cultural DNA, who reject the known for the alien shores of undiscovered frontiers of science and philosophy. This is what makes them special, not their products or their plaudits, not their lives and the hagriographies written in their honor, this altered sight that allows them, for just a moment, to glimpse the beautiful chaos of the unformed. The glories and the costs of such perspectives are detailed thoroughly and methodically in Bernard Carlson's engaging biography of an exceedingly strange legend of history.

Born in a 19th-century Europe obsessed by the dying days of empire, Nicola Tesla would become one of the most transformative, American inventors of the industrial age. Widely credited with the creation of systems to harness the powers of Alternating Current, and having made powerful contributions to the understanding and usage of wireless transmission of both information and electricity, he was celebrated, in his day, as a wizard of science, a man who used his expansive imagination to dream up fanciful technologies and demonstrate them to crowds in awe of his discoveries. His insights and designs, even today, underpin technologies in everything from cars to smartphones. Many have won greater fame and awards for achieving far less. After all, were it not for Tesla Motors, named in homage to the great inventor, would anyone in mainstream culture even remember the man?

Why such a genius has had his star burn so dimly for so long has a complex answer rooted in Tesla's eccentricities and his society's biases. A likely bisexual who never married, Tesla did not conform to the social customs of his turn-of-the-century day. But as much as we would like to blame his lack of fame on something as simple as societal ignorance, we cannot. For it's equally clear that Tesla possessed a fondness for making boastful claims that he often failed to back up. Repeatedly, his more fantastic projects encountered unforeseen problems that set him back years, eventually earning him a reputation as someone whose bark was louder than his bite. These factors combined to banish him into relative obscurity, until a recent spate of biographies has re-established him as one of the great minds of our age.

At times revelatory and opinionated, Tesla is a thoughtful biography of a complex genius. Mr. Carlson, who does not shy away from attempting to explain both the man and his insights into electricity, its properties and the manner in which it interacts with our world, does an excellent job describing Tesla's successes, his failures and his methodologies. The reader is not only furnished with an understanding of the importance of 19-century patents, but with the science contained within those patents and how it has outlived Tesla himself, growing to become a fundamental technology upon which a large swath of our world operates.

But these explainations, however educational, are secondary to Tesla himself, a man with a remarkable life story that Mr. Carlson largely handles with respect and fascination. The author details his tragic family history, his personal drive to succeed, and the numerous ways in which the meritocratic United States aided him in turning his drawing-board scribblings into products and standards that could quite literally light the world. It's here that Mr. Carlson shines. For he is perfectly willing to speculate on Tesla's mentality, his drivers and his demons, doing so with an openness that is as refreshing as his insights are compelling. We'll never know for certain what Tesla the man was like, but Tesla does a wonderful job conveying a consistent impression of a man buoyed by a profound belief in himself and his capacity to overcome every obstacle. That this was both the great gift and central tragedy of Tesla's life will surprise no one who reads this book.

Where Tesla wanes is in the less interesting chapters of the inventor's later life. Mr. Carlson spends ample time on the disputes and the grudges, the insights and the patents, during the heady days of the 1890s. But Tesla is allowed, with only minimal comment, to lapse into his long twilight. Perhaps this reflects what little we know of Tesla's last 38 years, but one senses that the author was far more interested in the feverish years than he was in how a genius lives when the world stops paying attention to him. This, along with the absence of any effort to connect Tesla the man to Tesla Motors, much less the AC age that he gave birth to, seems a notable oversight.

Notwithstanding its shortcomings, Tesla is a mind-altering examination of the powers of imagination. For it is in no way a simple matter to conceive of an unmade world. Tesla is a blind man who managed to draw the blueprints to a city without having ever seen one, by simply willing himself to imagine it, to know it, to possess the whole of it. That act of purely mental discovery is remarkable. And that Mr. Carlson chose to position it at center stage of his biography is as laudatory as it is thought provoking. A good glimpse into a unique mind... (4/5 Stars)

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