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Radioactivity: A History of a Mysterious Science
Radioactivity: A History of a Mysterious Science
Marjorie C. Malley
Oxford University Press, 2011
280 pp., 32.95

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Science in Focus: Ian Hutchinson

Radioactivity, Part 2

Mysterious or routine?

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In early spring of 2011, radioactivity was detected in rain water in Boston. Actually, rainwater always contains radioactivity, but this was of a particular type: Iodine-131, which persists only for a few weeks outside a nuclear reactor. Using heroically sensitive techniques, investigators detected approximately 3 disintegrations per second per liter of rain water. It was attributed to the Fukushima nuclear plant, devastated by the giant tsunami, its melted cores leading to a major radioactive release. In Tokyo, the peak level detected in rain was about 190 disintegrations per second per liter. How dangerous is that?

The name of Antoine-Henri Becquerel, the discoverer of radioactivity, is commemorated in the unit of radioactivity. One Becquerel is one disintegration (or nuclear "transmutation") per second. Each disintegration releases an alpha, beta, or gamma "ray." Becquerel, Pierre and Marie Curie, Ernest Rutherford, Frederick Soddy, Otto Hahn, and many other colorful characters populate Marjorie Malley's Radioactivity, but it is hard to get to know them. The first half of the book recounts the history of the scientific discoveries—not so much the discoverers—that, from 1896 to the start of World War I, define Malley's focus. (After the war, as she sees it, radioactivity morphed into nuclear physics.) It isn't that Malley's characters are bloodless. She speculates, for example, about the influence of Marie Curie's religious upbringing. Malley attributes Curie's subsequent professional demeanor to a transferred scientific "religious life." After all, as a scientist, Curie was "clothed in plain, simple garments … the prescribed uniform of clerics and nuns"; indeed, she was "religious to the core, with the pursuit of science replacing the traditional goals of religion." Rather it is that, like most writers undertaking the challenge of scientific popularization, Malley is chiefly concerned to express the scientific ideas in terms that a popular audience can feel comfortable with.

Probably a technical expert like me is poorly qualified to judge whether Malley succeeds in her appointed task. It is certainly interesting to hear recounted the historical foundations of one's field in the terminology of that former day. Having a systematic modern understanding of the significance of experiments might be a spoiler of the mystery. Yet Malley's rendition nicely captures the sense of progressive discovery. And she explains well, still from the historical perspective, what made the field mysterious. The sustained dramatic irony that I experienced from this approach was quite pleasant. I was slightly troubled by a handful of imprecise expressions couched in misleading language (e.g., "size" and "mass" aren't the same), and a couple of historical and philosophical errors (e.g., Faraday, long before, had detected, not just "predicted," magnetic influence on light; Duhem's philosophy was instrumentalism, not positivism). But these are mostly nitpicks.

If I have a mild complaint about the book overall, it is that it never escapes its subtitle: "A History of a Mysterious Science." The impression one gains of applications of radioactivity is that they are fraught with unjustified commercial hype and unforeseen dangers. These characteristics were certainly present in the early years, as they are for any new technology; and the development of nuclear weapons still overshadows all things nuclear. But radioactivity is simply a standard part of nature. It is literally everywhere. As an example, a typical adult human body contains about 7,000 Becquerels of radioactivity, far higher than what was detected in Boston's rain, yet totally benign. I wish that Malley's book had set out to demystify, rather than to mystify, radioactivity. It might not feed a yearning for melodrama to say so, but radioactivity is routine.

Ian Hutchinson is professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT. He is the author of Monopolizing Knowledge (Fias Publishing).

See also:

Timothy F. Slater, Radioactivity, Part 1

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