Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation by Timothy J. Jorgensen, book review

This common sense study dispels some of the myths surrounding a force of nature

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We need to talk about radiation, because although we like to think we have shed our primitive fears and superstitions, this is one topic that has so far proved resistant to the march of rationality.

Why is radiation so feared? Let me list the misconceptions. It is an invisible force that can harm us: well, the air is invisible and currently the air in the UK is thought to be responsible for 8 per cent of annual deaths in urban areas due to its grossly polluted nature. Radiation is not natural, it is some kind of Frankenscience monstrosity: the earth has always been radioactive; it is this that has powered the great geological cycles and thereby given us neatly sorted mineral deposits we can use. It causes cancer: yes, and so does the ultraviolet radiation that we soak up on our beach holidays yet we would rather lather on the sunblock than give up this pleasure. Couldn't we just take similar precautions with the other forms of radiation?

So if any area of knowledge needs a good, rational backgrounder to dispel ignorance, it is radiation, and Timothy Jorgensen, a US professor of radiation medicine, mostly exudes authority, common sense and humanity – although his morally null treatment of the development of nuclear weapons often left me feeling queasy, with statements such as "Their [hydrogen bombs'] efficiency in killing enemy troops can be greatly enhanced". I'm sure it can but isn't there something else that should be said here? These passages sit oddly with the rest of the book.

Radiation made its bow on the cusp of the 19th turning into 20th century. X rays were discovered in late 1895 and natural radioactivity a few months later. Jorgensen does a fine job of differentiating the different kinds: basic particulate radiation from electrons and alpha particle (helium nuclei) and electromagnetic radiation, close cousin of visible light and radio waves but with very short wavelengths and high energies.

Notions of the dangers posed by radiation went through a 180 degree reverse as the 20th century proceeded. The radiation pioneers were often cavalier about safety, whereas there was a general sense that current electricity was really dangerous. Now most people know that, so long as you don't poke your fingers in a socket, electricity is safely confined, but radiation invokes a diffuse terror. But in the early days, many positively welcomed radiation as if it were a miracle healing force. Quack radium medicines were sold in the 1920s before the tragedy of the luminous watch workers was revealed. In case you don't know the story, the watch-girls used to lick their brushes to get a fine point, ingesting radium every time they did. Radium is a close cousin of calcium and ends up in the bones where it then destroys living tissues.

Jorgensen doesn't stint on such horror stories – Hiroshima; the Lucky Dragon fishermen irradiated by fallout from the H-Bomb test at Bikini Atoll; Fukushima – but he also stresses the benefits that derive from radiation science. Biochemical medical research would be unimaginable without radioisotope tracers to track the course of molecules; radio dating has provided us with a true picture of the earth's geological and biological evolution. Radioactivity causes cancer but it is also one of our chief weapons against it. We need that strange glow: without our understanding of the physics behind radiation we would be children lost in the dark. The only antidote to irrational fear is knowledge, and Strange Glow imparts this in spades.

Princeton, £24.95. Order at £22.45 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop