Serbian-American inventor, engineer, and scientist, Nikola Tesla (1856–1943) made a number of breakthroughs in the production, transmission, and application of electric power.
Dr. Michael Pravica is Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and a member of HiPSEC (High Pressure and Engineering Center).
Simply Charly: Nikola Tesla is known to the public mainly for his invention and work on the alternating current. What advancements and/or inventions of his are less celebrated? How do they impact our daily lives? Can you give examples of modern appliances that would not exist without him?
Michael Pravica: Nikola Tesla was the first person ever to demonstrate wireless remote control via his tuned LC (inductance/capacitance) circuit concept, which is the bedrock of modern communications, including radio in 1898 in Madison Square Garden. Whereas Guglielmo Marconi received the Nobel Prize for his successful but passive transmission of wireless Morse code letter “s” across the Atlantic in 1901, Tesla received little or no recognition. Yet, modern communications (television, radio, shortwave, etc.) would be impossible without Tesla’s seminal idea of sending efficient signals at fixed (tuned) frequencies and receiving them in similar/symmetric/tuned way. All remote control devices such as garage door openers, television remotes, keyless ignition, the space shuttle, among many others, operate in this way. Many other technologies were developed from this concept beyond simple communication, including nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and electron spin resonance (ESR), which generated Nobel prizes and untold trillions of dollars of benefit for human beings except for Tesla. The US Supreme Court decided in 1943 that Tesla should have priority for the invention of the radio, but that decision was handed down a few months after his death on January 7, 1943.
Without the essential ingredient of the tuned circuit LC circuit, most of modern communications would be impossible (cell phone, television, radio, satellites, etc.). I can only imagine how different our world would be without these inventions. As far as his other achievements, such as alternating current and the precursor to fluorescent lighting, a brief list of appliances that would not be here today would be washing and drying machines, elevators, alternators, spark plugs, fans, hair dryers, and air conditioners. In fact, a better response to this part of the question is to ask what modern appliances would still be here if he had not made his contributions because most would be nearly impossible to use without alternating current.
SC: Tesla worked as an assistant to Thomas Edison, who is often credited, among other things, with the invention of our modern electrical system. What was the relationship between Tesla and Edison really like?
MP: I think there was probably a rivalry between them from day one. Tesla was university-educated, tall, handsome, refined, and European. Edison, on the other hand, was none of these things, or at least less so. The nearly penniless Tesla was brimming with ideas, and Edison was brimming with money and assistants. Was there jealousy between the two? Probably. There were also likely communication/cultural misunderstandings, which apparently turned into nasty spats. In summary, both men were fiercely independent and had large egos. I just don’t think the world was big enough for both of them.
SC: Tesla was born in 1856, and the majority of his inventions began in the early 20th century. However, his inventions have been used over the past century with relatively little modification. Why do you think that is? What does this say about Tesla as a scientist?
MP: I think Tesla had an unusual ability to “think through” and visualize his inventions. By working out the basic details in his head and then later in his notebook and the laboratory, he managed to create “near perfect” inventions that have indeed stood the test of time. Tesla was a master scientist who deeply understood the fundamental physics underlying his original ideas and, with a prepared scientific mind, was able to observe and learn from nature. He was also a master inventor who could use his deep understanding of physical laws to develop practical devices (often harnessing and/or converting energy) that actually worked. Such a person comes along only every few generations.
SC: In one of your articles titled “Nikola Tesla, godfather of the 20th Century, deserves more credit,” you mentioned that Tesla “harnessed the enormous power of Niagara Falls as he built the world’s first hydroelectric power station there.” How did he manage to accomplish control over such a vast waterfall? What is the significance of that achievement?
MP: Essentially, large tubes/pipes were created partially to divert the massive water flow from near the high end above the Falls and force it to flow through blades (flowing down the plateau in the tubes) that provided force/torque to turn Tesla’s enormous turbines which generated alternating current in turn. All modern hydroelectric power stations operate in this way. Of course, Tesla had a team of engineers to construct the power plant in Niagara Falls, which was financed by Westinghouse.
This achievement completed in 1893 became one of the first examples of the harnessing of an enormous amount of “free” energy that could be transmitted over astonishingly large distances, 22 miles at first to Buffalo, and then, later on, 400 miles to New York City. The energy provided by Niagara Falls significantly aided America’s industrial revolution, which was largely dependent on cheap and ubiquitously-available alternating current. Humans had never before been able to project such enormous energies for such long distances. Over the past 122 years, entire nations have devoted significant portions of their annual budgets toward constructing hydroelectric facilities such as in the Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze river in China, or the Hoover Dam in Nevada/Arizona.
SC: On your website, you mention a new field of science called “useful hard x-ray induced chemistry.” In simplified terms, what is this new field like? What are your goals for it, and what exactly does it entail?
MP: I take advantage of the highly focused, highly penetrating, and highly energetic/ionizing properties of hard x-rays (with energies > 7keV) to initiate novel decomposition and synthetic chemistry in situ in closed and/or pressurized chambers for useful benefit. Though x-ray induced decomposition has been known for decades, we are using the x-ray induced reactions for useful benefit (e.g., loading of simple molecules such as oxygen, fluorine, chlorine, nitrogen, and hydrogen) in a pressurized cell.
I have Tesla to thank for my discoveries as he taught us how to generate and harness very high voltages (>1000 volts) via his Tesla coil (and, as a result, observed the first x-rays which are produced by high voltage deceleration of charged particles). Also, he made important contributions toward the development of modern accelerators (which require high voltage to accelerate particles) and the concept of distributed resonance, which is utilized in many modern accelerators. Tesla was one of the first to grasp the significance of distributed resonance/oscillating fields in cavities.
As happens with any new field of science, discoveries can generate novel technology and vice versa. In our case, we envision that this new field of science will offer a novel means of chemical synthesis of challenging compounds that can only be synthesized under extreme conditions like high pressure, high temperature, and/or high radiation flux. We also are hopeful that some insights into the chemical theory of detonation, a Holy Grail of chemistry, may be garnered by studying the flow of oxygen, both in radical O and molecular O2 forms, and other simple molecules at very high pressures. We can also study how different molecules move and mix (or separate/segregate) under extreme conditions. We have applied for a patent based on our discoveries.
SC: You have recently taken action in the political world by visiting your state representatives and encouraging them to support more funding for scientific research. How will more scientific research lead to an overall improvement in America?
MP: America derives its greatness as a superpower largely on the myriad miracles of science and applied science (technology) that have occurred since the founding of this great nation. The key is that discoveries in science—natural philosophy—garner new insights about the natural world, which, in turn, develop novel technologies and vice versa. Our economy, well-being, and national defense are all heavily dependent on scientific discovery. In fact, many of the greatest scientific discoveries and technological innovations, such as the development of the transistor, lasers, MRI, and NMR, all have their roots in scientific research and generate untold trillions of dollars in revenue for our society. Sadly, many of our political leaders are scientifically illiterate and, as such, are not aware of how continued critical support for scientific research is to America’s continued success and economic expansion via the development of novel technologies. Beyond this, there are many impending crises that will affect all humanity, which include climate change, poisoning of our ecosphere, and dwindling natural resources, including freshwater. Only scientists and researchers will be able to mitigate these crises. The more we understand about Nature, the better able we are to harness it for useful benefit.
Dollar for dollar, investment in scientific research is one of humanity’s best investments.
SC: You are not only a researcher but a teacher as well, having been awarded the CSUN Student Government 2013 Faculty Excellence Award for teaching and the UNLV College of Sciences 2013 Distinguished Teaching Award. Are your students typically familiar with Tesla? How does Tesla influence your teaching and research?
MP: I love discussing Tesla—particularly in my introductory-level courses—where students are generally not aware of how much this one person did for all humanity. When covering Tesla-related material (for example, alternating current and radio) in class, I always stop to discuss him. I find that mentioning him motivates the students to learn more about his achievements. I have also given a number of talks on Tesla (with a Tesla coil demonstration) to all levels: K-12, university, and public talks with a high level of audience interest. As a mere example, in one public UNLV forum talk that included a Tesla coil demonstration, I received a standing ovation. In another talk to children at the local Boys and Girls club, I had 45 minutes of questions from the excited kids after a 30-minute presentation.
Tesla showed us that one human being could indeed change the course of humanity for the better. Tesla had many friends outside of his profession including nonscientists like writer Mark Twain and always sought to educate/help others. For me, Tesla helped inspire me to make a positive difference on this planet and to share my enthusiasm for the natural world, as well as discoveries I may have made in science, with my students and anyone else who wants to listen. I have been fortunate to make some small contributions, to the field of MRI, for instance, that in little ways benefit humanity. There is no greater mission than that.
SC: You appear to be passionate about emphasizing the role of science in education. In what ways is science being undermined and what do you forecast for the future of science education? How can teaching students the significant achievements of individuals in history like Tesla improve education?
MP: As implied in question 6, we live in a world dominated by science, and yet many people are unaware of this. A democracy cannot function without an educated population. Science education is one key requirement—particularly as we will all need to be engaged in solving some pretty challenging problems—and the more science we all know, the better.
I worry that not enough Americans are taking science courses in part because science is difficult—it’s about the natural world that evolved over billions of years to produce us. It’s not going to be easy. Mastering science starts with mathematics, which is our language and a template/means to connect with reality via units (time, distance, force, etc.). Many students are scared off by mathematics, and it is evident to me that “new” ways of teaching math are not helping. Science also teaches the art of analytical thinking/problem solving, which is also not easy. Good scientists are keen observers of nature and not quitters. Many of my experiments end up failing, though I learn something each time I perform one. The few experiments that truly succeed make the struggle all worth it. The same works for solving problems/doing homework for a science class. I fear that we live in a day and age where our children are not encouraged to persevere and struggle but instead are taught to seek instantaneous gratification and are overly distracted by our abuse of technology. Tesla was a quintessential struggler who would not accept “no” for answer—even while discussing his new ideas of alternating current with his professor. He was also incredibly focused, which is an absolute requirement to solve problems and perform research successfully.
We all have dreams. Science and the skills derived from directed and sustained scientific inquiry can help us achieve those dreams. I think that by studying the earlier intellectual giants such as Tesla, on whose shoulders we all stand, we are inspired to follow their examples that changed the world for the better, and sought to contribute to improving the human condition.
SC: You have stated that you “desire that Americans learn more about Nikola Tesla.” You even mention that you consider Tesla as the “godfather of the 20th century and beyond.” Why do you think Tesla’s ideas are not more appreciated today?
MP: Unfortunately for Tesla, he lost a lot of corporate backing as he grew older—so much so that he couldn’t even afford the patent application fees—culminating with his loss of financial support from JP Morgan, which, in turn, killed his Wardenclyffe tower project. To some wealthy individuals and the corporations they controlled, Tesla represented a threat because he believed in the concept of freely available energy and sought to help all humanity instead of control it. His long-standing feud with Edison didn’t help either, as there is evidence that Edison tried to harm his rival’s image after his death by censoring discussion of Tesla’s incredible achievements. As a result, few people outside of specialists knew of Tesla in the many decades since his passing. However, I do feel that there has been a resurgence of interest in Tesla, in part because of his selfless efforts to help humans harness energy. Many of his ideas, like the bladeless turbine, are being realized only now, and he is winning all of the last battles with Edison, especially when it comes to the growth and popularity of fluorescent lighting when compared to the waning of incandescent lighting.
SC: What do you feel is Tesla’s lasting legacy?
MP: Tesla was one of humanity’s greatest heroes. As an engineer/inventor, he gave us our electrical grid and the foundation of our modern communication systems, along with many other important inventions. As a scientist, he taught us how safely to generate, harness, and study high voltage and high frequencies (including x-rays), and “communicate” with nuclear (NMR, MRI) and electron spins (ESR), which inaugurated a significant portion of modern physics. As a humanitarian, he demonstrated his unwavering and selfless commitment to helping all humanity as a true visionary and Orthodox Christian. Though he died a pauper in a rented room in the New Yorker hotel and benefited little from his sacrifices, his spirit and selfless example still live on and will hopefully inspire the next Tesla someday.