Thursday, October 3, 2019

The scientific mistake in Tökland

The mystery of Tökland Island is one of the best-known novels of the Spanish writer Joan Manuel Gisbert, which in 1980 won him the Lazarillo Award.
In the first part of the book, a millionaire is trying to find the right person, who in the second part should help him unveil a tremendous secret, and so he builds an underground labyrinth in the depths of the fictional Tökland Island, offering a grand prize to the person who will manage to solve all the problems posed by the successive rooms of the maze.
At first, all who try to solve the challenge posed by the maze fail ignominiously. At last, the protagonist of the novel decides to attempt the adventure, but as he does not trust himself to solve every problem alone, he prepares a team of collaborators, specialists in various fields, who will contact him from a ship that will remain close to the island, and while he goes through the labyrinth will help him solve the problems he finds there.
To communicate secretly with the ship, the protagonist is provided with a tiny radio transmitter inserted into a false tooth, which works by making it collide with the opposite tooth, thus allowing him to send Morse coded messages to the ship, explaining each problem that he must solve. The team of collaborators sends him the solution to the problem by means of a radio message, which he receives in a receiver-earpiece hidden in one of his external auditory conduits. With this help, the protagonist solves all the problems of the labyrinth, receives the promised prize and goes on to face the true mystery, which makes the second part of the book.
What is the scientific mistake of this novel? Quite simply, that the ingenious procedure used by the protagonist to communicate with his collaborators wouldn’t have worked. Why? Because radio waves cannot cross the ground, so they wouldn’t reach the depths of the maze. In fact, they also wouldn’t pass through water, which they’d need to do if a part of the labyrinth were located below sea level.
It is easy to verify that radio waves cannot go through the ground. Just enter a tunnel with a car, with the radio on. While the car is inside the tunnel, you’ll notice that the radio just produces noise. As soon as the car leaves the tunnel, the radio works again.
Joan Manuel Gisbert
Similarly, in the subway tunnels there was no coverage for mobile phones until repeaters connected outside by means of cables were introduced. This system would not be feasible in the labyrinth of Tökland Island, as it would require performing works that couldn’t be done in secret. Consequently, the trick used by the protagonist wouldn’t have worked in real life.
We all know that radar, which uses radio waves, does not work in water or through the ground, just in air and space. To get a similar effect on water, sonar is used, which rather than electromagnetic waves uses acoustic waves.
Could sound waves have been used on Tökland Island? The answer is negative for two reasons: on the one hand, the acoustic receivers and transmitters couldn’t have been miniaturized as much as the radio, and therefore wouldn’t have been hidden; on the other, the acoustic waves sent in both directions would have had to pass through the air of the labyrinth, much less suitable for their transmission than water and earth. Therefore, this solution should be discarded.
In any case, although the procedure used by the protagonist wouldn’t have worked in practice, this novel can be read with interest and hooks the reader, at least during this first part we have just reviewed.

The same post in Spanish
Thematic Thread on Literature and Cinema: Previous Next
Manuel Alfonseca

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