Radioactivity: A History of a Mysterious Scienceby Published 25 Aug 2011
|Radioactivity: A History of a Mysterious Science.pdf|
|Publisher||Oxford University Press, USA|
This is the story of a new science. Beginning with an obscure discovery in 1896, radioactivity led researchers on a quest for understanding that ultimately confronted the intersection of knowledge and mystery.
Mysterious from the start, radioactivity attracted researchers who struggled to understand it. What caused certain atoms to give off invisible, penetrating rays? Where did the energy come from? These questions became increasingly pressing when researchers realized the process seemed to continue indefinitely, producing huge quantities of energy. Investigators found cases where radioactivity did change, forcing them to the startling conclusion that radioactive bodies were transmuting into other substances. Chemical elements were not immutable after all. Radioactivity produced traces of matter so minuscule and evanescent that researchers had to devise new techniques and instruments to investigate them.
Scientists in many countries, but especially in laboratories in Paris, Manchester, and Vienna unraveled the details of radioactive transformations. They created a new science with specialized techniques, instruments, journals, and international conferences. Women entered the field in unprecedented numbers. Experiments led to revolutionary ideas about the atom and speculations about atomic energy. The excitement spilled over to the public, who expected marvels and miracles from radium, a scarce element discovered solely by its radioactivity. The new phenomenon enkindled the imagination and awakened ancient themes of literature and myth.
Entrepreneurs created new industries, and physicians devised novel treatments for cancer. Radioactivity gave archaeologists methods for dating artifacts and meteorologists a new explanation for the air's conductivity. Their explorations revealed a mysterious radiation from space. Radioactivity profoundly changed science, politics, and culture. The field produced numerous Nobel Prize winners, yet radioactivity's talented researchers could not solve the mysteries underlying the new phenomenon. That was left to a new generation and a new way of thinking about reality.
Radioactivity presents this fascinating history in a way that is both accessible and appealing to the general reader. Not merely a historical account, the book examines philosophical issues connected with radioactivity, and relates its topics to broader issues regarding the nature of science.
Radioactivity: A History of a Mysterious Science Reviews
This is about the 5th book about radioactivity I've read this year. All featured Marie Curie to some degree and all had a different perspective. This book really focused on the individuals responsible for teasing out the mysteries surroungding radioactivity, but rather than focus on their stories, really was a summary of the history and how various theories developed over time. I think the book may have worked better if it didn't jump around so much in time. Also, I think the last few chapters should have been either fleshed out more (on the implications of the discovery and use of radioactive materials) or removed completely. Still, it was intereseting to read about the various personalities, simultaneous discoveries, and international cooperation among scientists. I'd recommend for those who are truly interested in this subject.
I enjoyed the book especially more info on Marie Curie, her political and humanist views. Much of the info on radioactivity I already knew about so I skipped sections of the book. The most tragic part was the fact that many of the scientists (probably most of them) were injured and several died as a result of their ignorance about handling radium and uranium.
This is a very geeky books with lots of scientific jargon which a non-technical person nay not be able to understand without considerable effort. However, readers who have relevant technical background will find it a good and interesting read.
See full review here - http://ashutoshsrivastava.com/2011/09...
Radioactivity is a great disappointment. The idea of a little book using radiation as the unifying theme to discuss some of the great science of the twentieth century is appealing, the level of the book is pitched just right for young teenagers developing an interest in science, and the rather plodding style could be forgiven if the information conveyed were accurate. Alas, in all too many places, it is not, in spite of being, we are told by the author, “based on years of my research”.
Marjorie Malley is introduced to us as a historian of science, garlanded with degrees from MIT, Harvard, and Berkeley. It is hard to take seriously a historian who does not know the difference between the Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire – which, as all the boys I went to school with knew, was neither Holy, nor Roman nor an Empire. She also seems to think that the USA was pursuing a nuclear bomb programme before the outbreak of World War II. It is hard to take seriously a scientist who, among a catalogue of errors as long as my arm, thinks that electrons can pass through metal foil (a diagram which the author includes but clearly does not understand demonstrates the opposite); incorrectly describes Big Bang nucleosynthesis; and (most egregiously in this context) has only a fuzzy understanding of the special theory of relativity. Compared with this, the fact that she confuses the estimate Lord Kelvin made for the age of the Sun with the age of the Earth pales, although it does manage to be incorrect both historically and scientifically. Oh my Harvard and my MIT long ago.
Nevertheless, the book is not all bad, and the story it tells is a grand one, well worth telling. Although much of it will be familiar to anyone with the slightest scientific awareness (for example, the life and work of Marie and Pierre Curie), the intended student audience may well find much of it new. Such readers may well delight in Lord Rutherford’s comment, made as late as 1933, that “we cannot control atomic energy to an extent which would be of any value commercially, and I believe that we are not likely ever to be able to do so.”
Indeed, the appearance of such old friends in these pages gave me a warm glow, reminding me of an occasion when I attended a performance of The Importance of Being Ernest and sat near a man who had clearly never seen or read the play, and who took such delight in Wilde’s witticisms that it gave those around him some idea of what it must have been like to be at St James’s Theatre on Valentine’s Day of 1895. If radiation is as new to you as Wilde was to 1890s London, there is much to be gleaned from this book – if you concentrate on the broad picture and are wary of the details.
That big picture takes us from the discovery that atoms emit energy ands are not indivisible through the discovery of the nucleus and the possibility of transmutation of the elements (yes, the alchemists weren’t so crazy after all!) to applications of radioactivity in medicine and elsewhere, but wanders into the realms if dialectics with discussion of the possibility that our interpretation of the nature of reality may be as much a matter of philosophy as science. This is hogwash usually propounded by “philosophers” who have no experience or understanding of science at the cutting edge. You can philosophise all you like about the nature of matter and energy, but E will still be equal to mc2.
With what seems remarkably misplaced confidence, Marjorie Malley describes her book as “broad and accurate”. Were that so, I would heartily recommend it. But breadth without accuracy butters no parsnips. If only it had been written by Frank Close.
'Radioactivity: A History of a Mysterious Science' presents a body of work that is more mysterious than the supposed 'mysterious science'. Oh and before I go any further, all science is mysterious after discovery and in the initial research, radioactivity is not the exception. And I fail to understand how radioactivity could still be perceived as mysterious today, unless you have never learnt about it.
Which brings me to my next point. Just who is this book aimed at? The book is split into three sections, the first being a blow by blow description in intricate detail of research conducted in the late 19th century and early 20th century on radiation with the author purposely going through each failed postulate. The second section looks at laboratory apparatus and equipment used during these experiments and the third section, well I don't quite know what the third section was. There was sub headings like 'Mythological and Romantic Dimensions of Radioactivity' talk about anthropology... I skimmed most of this section. I think it was a liberal arts view of the science.
The main point I'd like to make of this book, in NO way will someone who has little knowledge of radioactivity come away from this book and be able to tell someone what radioactivity is. This is not a book to educate the public about radioactivity.
The reason why I was able to understand most of the first section is that I am a scientist. I have a reasonable understanding of this subject. I could understand why these scientists were doing these experiments and what was wrong with their postulates. Without this knowledge the book would read as an obscure rabbits warren of false readings and bad assumptions.
So this is obviously not a popular science book. What is it then? An academic book? Well it's unlike any scientific academic book that I have read. Even a book aimed at a high understanding of the subject will introduce the subject briefly and concisely before going into a history.
I'm at a loss to explain this book. It may just be me not being the audience that this was intended for. I must admit that I have not done much academic reading beyond the sciences so I would not know any other types of academic writing if they hit me in the face.