The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 72.0°F | A Few Clouds

MIT prof writes book on magnets you'll like reading

By Joel M. Rosenberg
Staff Reporter

Many children go through a phase, perhaps near the age of 12, when they take things apart to see how they work. I reached this phase about 50 years late," writes Materials Science and Engineering Senior Lecturer James Livingston in his book "Driving Force: The Natural Magic of Magnets."

The book deals exclusively with magnets, describing past, present, and future applications and history. Livingston's light and conversational style makes the material easy to read, quite accessible, and rather entertaining. His lifetime of experience with magnets, both at MIT and while doing research and development with General Electric, which he refers to often, comes through in his thorough treatment of the subject.

Livingston starts out by presenting a general working knowledge of magnets, and then moves into individual uses chapter by chapter. The large extent to which magnets are used becomes apparent quickly as the subject changes from stereos and speakers to power plants and shoplifting equipment to medical applications and beyond.

By framing magnetic developments in a historic context, Livingston impresses audiences with much more than just natural magic. There's stuff on quack doctors trying to heal people using "magnetic therapy." While the idea has no scientific basis, it still helped lay the groundwork for what was later to become the study of healing and the mind, since people did seem to get better from the quack treatments. The battle of AC versus DC is even more incredible: Harold Brown, a DC proponent, challenged George Westinghouse, AC's hero, to a duel by electricity, gradually increasing voltages of each person's favorite type of electricity until one either surrendered, or died. The duel never happened, AC and Westinghouse won, and today, both are extremely widespread.

Parts of the book satisfies the way-things-work spirit that engineers tend to love. Other parts are just plain magnet trivia, such as what cow magnets are (three-inch long cylinders that cows swallow and keep in their stomachs to prevent steel objects they may gulp down my accident from ripping up their intestines). The book definitely makes it clear that magnets don't just hold tests and report cards to the refrigerator.

Livingston does have a tendency to emphasize MIT in his discussions, which won't be a problem for people from MIT, but might exclude those outside the MIT community to a small extent - an interesting point, considering the spine of the book reads "Livingston/Driving Force/Harvard," because of the book's publisher.

While not as suspenseful as a Stephen King novel, the book is definitely worth reading if the subject interests you. With several months before textbooks come back into play, - or training manuals, for that matter, if that's where life is taking you - Livingston's book will make for good summer reading, as far as science books go. Besides, an autographed copy is as close as Building 13.

After reading the book, it will become apparent that magnets are everywhere. They're in the computer you type on. They're in the TV you watch. And they're all over the car that you'll drive to the bookstore. They're in the power plant that supplies the electricity for the lights and registers at the bookstore. They're in and on the refrigerator at home that keeps snacks cold for breaks from reading your book. They're in the stereo that provides background music for your reading. And now they're in the book itself.