If, like me, you stopped studying the sciences at school at the earliest opportunity then the word `radiation’ may be something you associate with nuclear power and weaponry.
Yet, as Tim Jorgensen explains in his fascinating book Strange Glow: The Story Of Radiation (Princeton University Press), radiation is involved in all sorts of processes that we take for granted. If mankind hadn’t developed a thorough understanding of radiation, reveals Jorgensen, the world would be a very different place.
Take broken bones. If you’ve been unfortunate enough to suffer a fracture, you’ve probably undergone an X-Ray. Well X-Rays are a form of radiation.
Indeed, as the author explains, they were one of the earliest ways in which an understanding of radiation was put to good use.
Back in 1895 a scientist called Wilhelm Roentgen was using something called a Crookes tube, an essential piece of scientific kit at the time. It’s a bit like a light bulb without a filament, and when Herr Roentgen switched it on, he noticed that a fluorescent screen started to glow.
Perhaps to see if he could make shadow puppets, he put his hand between the tube and the screen, only to make a startling discovery. He could see the bones in his hand. At the time, the only way of seeing part of someone’s skeleton in this way was to wait until they had passed on, so he was unsurprisingly freaked out.
Fortunately for us, he quickly got his scientific head back on and used some film to preserve the image. Around the world other physicists were able to do the same thing easily with the equipment at their disposal.
Within a very short time X-rays were being used to help treat broken bones. Thankfully for the medical world, another discovery involving Crookes tubes took things a step forward.
Soon after Roentgen’s revelation a medical student in Chicago found his hands were getting burned. He wondered if it might be X-Rays from the Crookes tubes he was making to earn some money.
Somebody suggested that, if they could burn a hand they might also burn away a tumour and the very next day a woman with a tumour was sent along for treatment. Thankfully, the student had the sense to spread the treatment over 18 doses. To the delight of all concerned, the tumour shrank.
It’s the mix of scientific fact and such human anecdotes that make Jorgensen’s book one which should appeal to scientists and those simply curious about the scientific world.
Misconceptions about radiation abound, says Jorgensen. Nervous air passengers concerned about the amount of radiation they receive from an airport scanner needn’t be, he says. In reality, in the time receive from we spend in the scanner we get the and neither does us any harm
Other myths debunked by the book include; the notion that boys can become sterile from carrying a mobile phone in their trouser pocket, that you can cook an egg with a mobile (all those internet videos suggesting otherwise are bogus), or that eating bananas can give you a harmful dose of radiation.
My own favourite anecdote involves Marie Curie, discoverer of radium. At the time there were concerns that people working with radium could have become radioactive. As a result she was buried in a lead lined coffin to prevent the radiation leaking out. However, when her body was moved in the 1990s tests found no sign of significant contamination.
If you are curious about the world around you and want someone to talk you through this contentious subject, Jorgensen is an informed guide.