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Radioactivity: A History of a Mysterious Science
Radioactivity: A History of a Mysterious Science
Marjorie C. Malley
Oxford University Press, USA, 2011
280 pp., $21.95

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Science in Focus: Timothy F. Slater


Radioactivity, Part 1

Marie Curie and her fellow researchers

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Marjorie Malley provides a critical glimpse into how one's scientific philosophy governs how the scientific enterprise progresses and, perhaps more important, which discoveries are made by whom and when. As an example, she describes how French scientists were committed to a positivist paradigm. According to this philosophy, scientific progress should be constrained by mathematical models and abstract descriptions of phenomena, objectively freed from the inherent bias of frail human thinking. In contrast, she describes the English as instead being willing to image conceptual cartoons of phenomena that boldly suggested underlying physical mechanisms causing the phenomena without sufficient experimentation. Hence the French and the English, having different philosophies, posed different types of scientific questions and, as a result, arrived at different experimental results. This can be seen in contemporary science as well, where the push to widen the diversity of people engaged in the scientific enterprise has the potential to drive investigation in diverse directions, providing a more adequate—yet never complete—understanding of the world we inhabit.

In this vein, Malley includes a concise subsection on women scientists engaged in radioactivity research. Numerous women are listed, mostly without attention to their specific contributions. Alas, Malley doesn't take this opportunity to talk about how men and women have differed in their approaches to their scientific work, often reflecting but sometimes challenging assumptions concerning gender roles. Madam Curie, who does figure in Malley's narrative, helped scientists cross gender barriers in ways that continue to have a positive influence more than a century later.

Writing a history of radioactivity that is accessible and inviting to general readers while managing to convey the science accurately is a challenging task. Probably the biggest weakness in Malley's presentation is a seeming lack of understanding of how much new vocabulary novice readers can handle at once. Many paragraphs use considerable specialized vocabulary, describe scientific instrumentation which is unfamiliar to most readers, and glancingly refer to researchers who will exist for the readers only as names on the page. At the core of the book is a wondrous story of discovery, but the presentation lacks a structure that a reader can grasp readily.

Pleasurably, I did learn a few details that I didn't know before. One of the most important new perspectives I gained was about Henri Becquerel's discovery of uranium's impression on photographic plates. The simplified story we usually get is that Becquerel more or less accidentally discovered X-rays when he noticed that the image of a rock sample had unexpectedly appeared on a plate. Malley explains that Becquerel's observations were part of a larger, purposeful investigation, pursuing the idea that uranium's emissions might be being powered by sunlight. Not only is this a much more plausible story, it provides grand insight into the scientific process. The story demonstrates how scientific discovery, albeit often described as being surprising to the individual, in actuality most often happens to trained scientists who are purposefully observing phenomena with considerable interest and accumulated background knowledge.

I hoped that Marjorie Malley's history of radioactivity would both provide my students with an enhanced conceptual view of radioactivity and illuminate the rapidly changing cultural landscape in which the unraveling of radioactivity's greatest secrets was pursued. In the end, I judge that she approached some of my goals—which may or may not be the same as her goals—but did not attain them adequately enough to assign the book as required reading to my students.

Timothy F. Slater holds the Wyoming Excellence in Higher Education Endowed Chair for Science Education at the University of Wyoming.

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