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Mr. Magnets kicks off new authors series at MIT

Driving Force: The NaturaL Magic of Magnets

James D. Livingston.

Harvard University Press.


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 D. Livingston in his book Driving Force: The Natural Magic of Magnets.

Livingston, who is also known as Mr. Magnets, will be the first writer in a new authors series sponsored by the MIT Press Bookstore and the Humanities Library. This Monday, he will be signing copies of his book at 5:30 p.m. in the Humanities Reading Room, 14S-200.

The book deals exclusively with magnets, describing their past, present, and future applications and history. Living-ston'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 at General Electric where he did research and development (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 things and people make use of magnets 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 to 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, an AC supporter, 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 satisfy the way-things-work spirit that engineers tend to love. Other parts are just plain magnet trivia, explaining things like what cow magnets are (three-inch-long cylinders that cows swallow and keep in their stomachs to prevent steel objects they may gulp down by 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.

While not as suspenseful as a Stephen King novel, the book is definitely worth reading if the subject interests you. After reading the book, it will become apparent that magnets are everywhere. They're in the computer you type on. They're in the television 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 at the bookstore. They're in and on the refrigerator that keeps snacks cold for breaks from reading your book, and in the stereo that provides background music for your reading. And now they're in the book itself.