ABC Science Show – Who’s Nicola Tesla

This is a part of an interview with professor Igor Bray of Murdoch University broadcasted on ABC Radio National. This part of the Transcript was taken from the ABC’s web site.


Robyn Williams: The question is, who done it? Who is the murderer? And another question for today’s fairly forensic Science Show is, who’s Nicola Tesla, and why should you care?

Igor Bray: We know with characters like that we have to be careful not to judge them by our own standards. He worked on a different level to the rest of us. Many people saw him as a cash cow. They used up his ideas to make money for themselves. He said, ‘The present is for others, the future is for myself.’ A remarkable approach. Was he a tragic character or is that our projection on him? I don’t know.

Robyn Williams: Tesla would have been 150 years old this week. Strange genius. Hello I’m Robyn Williams. So let’s turn to crime.

<< Part of the interview related to crime is cut out from here >>

Robyn Williams: Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth, reviewed by David Fisher. General release for the film in Australia in September.

Nicola Tesla was an inconvenient man for some, and his 150th birthday was last Monday. Why should you care? Here’s a clue, then Professor Igor Bray in Perth.

[music: Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, AC/DC]

Igor Bray: Today is a very special day for physicists around the world. It is the 150th birthday of Nicola Tesla. He is known as the man who lit the world.

Robyn Williams: And what exactly did he do that people may have forgotten?

Igor Bray: He basically was the creator of the AC current. It is the way that electricity is transmitted around the world and all our lights are working on this basic principle.

Robyn Williams: So it oscillates back and forth instead of going direct current in one way.

Igor Bray: Indeed, and this way you can transmit power over much greater distances than what you could with the direct current, which is what Edison is possibly better known for. So with a DC current you start off with a relatively high voltage in one place but along the wire, very soon it diminishes to not being very useful, so there’s a much bigger loss of electrical energy in DC current.

Robyn Williams: Now, some people would imagine that the current is virtually like water, a flow from one place to another. If it’s alternating, how is it that you actually get something delivered when you’ve got what seems like an oscillating electron just wiggling to and fro?

Igor Bray: Well, the energy comes from the movement, so it doesn’t matter that the movement is not in one direction. His cleverness was to combine this with a moving magnetic field and this way you could extract the energy from these electrons. In fact, Edison argued that you will never create a motor based on an AC current, but Edison was wrong and Tesla was right and now you have electrical motors based on AC currents.

Robyn Williams: Tesla was wonderfully right about many things, the trouble was he had a strange personality, didn’t he?

Igor Bray: He did, he did have a very strange personality. On Thursday night here we had a one-man play by Frank Tabbita that I thoroughly recommend that people do investigate. There’s a website called And he tried to portray his character almost like a tragic character. He died alone and poor, but he was a man who played by his own rules. He was interested in invention and providing a legacy for mankind. He was not really interested in making money for himself. He would do things like measure the volume of food before he would eat it. Very strange. He had a preoccupation with the number three, and the physicists around the world are familiar with some of his eccentricities.

Robyn Williams: Sounds like Asperger’s to me.

Igor Bray: Perhaps it does, but he was an extraordinarily creative man and we owe him a great deal. There’s a quote from him dated at 1900 where he talked about basically what we now call the cell phone. He could see that such communication of information wirelessly was one day going to be possible using such small phones.

Robyn Williams: Isn’t it interesting that Edison was the opposite in terms of being a wonderfully adept entrepreneur, quite ruthless in many ways. Did he eclipse Tesla as well as many other people?

Igor Bray: Financially, absolutely. Intellectually, I think most people would agree, definitely not. Tesla is really now regarded as the great genius, but Edison had the financial power, so the history books have really been written through Edison foundations not Tesla ones, but that is being righted all around the world.

Robyn Williams: So much for Tesla, what about your own work in your quest for the nuclear matters and positrons and so forth? Any success?

Igor Bray: We’ve been awarded the Centre of Excellence, it’s a $10 million program, and the idea basically is to use positron physics to basically improve technologies, medical science that most people are familiar with, PET scans. This is a way of using positron physics to detect cancers in the body, so our task is to improve the resolution so you know exactly where your cancers are so you can treat it more precisely with few side effects, those sorts of issues. And then there are things like the A380…the aircraft that is being built, the paint, the quality of the paintwork is really important in terms of corrosion, in terms of airflow, and that is being measured, again, using positron physics.

Robyn Williams: We talked about electrons, the electricity current which is virtually the flow of electrons. Are positrons exactly the same except positive?

Igor Bray: The current standard model says yes, but people are not really that sure. So, for example, one of the things that people want to do is they want to create an atom called anti-hydrogen. This is where instead of having a proton in the middle you’ll have an anti-proton, instead of having an electron on the outside, as you do in hydrogen, you’ll have a positron. Can you imagine if you measure the same things as our standard model says, you should have exactly the same energies that will confirm that aspect of the standard model.

Robyn Williams: In the world are there as many positrons as there are electrons? In other words, is the anti the same number as the pro?

Igor Bray: Fundamental physics says they should be basically the same number. We cannot explain the asymmetry that we observe. When an electron and a positron come together…I guess most people are familiar with antimatter, antimatter rays from their science fiction…you do get a huge amount of energy. I was entertaining school kids all of last year during the Einstein international year of physics, and what happens…just how much energy through E=mc2 you get from an electron and a positron coming together. I was saying that from one milligram of positrons you have enough energy to take a 30 Mega tonne spacecraft 100 kilometres into the air. It’s an extraordinary amount of energy, and it all comes from E=mc2. When I said to you that you only need one milligram, I didn’t say how many positrons that really is because the mass of them is something like 10-31 kilograms. So it’s a huge, huge, huge amount, so we’re not able to collect that many to utilise for energy production.

Robyn Williams: How did you celebrate, by the way, Tesla’s 150th anniversary?

Igor Bray: On the Thursday we had this most fantastic play. We had over 600 people spellbound by one individual, a single actor. His props were some lights and a table, just a brilliant thing. I took my 11 year-old son there and he absolutely loved it and adored it. On the Friday we had a one-day conference of lots of talks, including myself, where we tried to relate our work to the legacy of Tesla. On the Saturday night we had music performances and dancing. On Sunday we had a Serbian community centre…Tesla is owned by many ethnic groups. He had Serbian parents, lived in Croatia, did a lot of work in various parts of Europe, and then of course the United States claims him as their own. Today we had an unveiling of his bust at the Department of Electrical and Electronic and Computer Engineering at UWA. So we had four days, full on, of celebrations.

Robyn Williams: Igor Bray at Murdoch University in Perth, celebrating the sesquicentenary of Nicola Tesla’s birth.