Magazine article Times Higher Education

Dealing with the Fallout

Magazine article Times Higher Education

Dealing with the Fallout

Article excerpt

From Mrs Roentgen's ring to Fukushima fears: Richard Joyner on an informative popular history

Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation

By Timothy J. Jorgensen

Princeton University Press

512pp, £24.95

ISBN 9780691165035 and 9781400880522 (e-book)

Published 9 March 2016

When the air becomes uraneous, we will all go simultaneous," sang Tom Lehrer in 1959, in anticipation of nuclear armageddon. Twenty years later, Hollywood explored the hazards of civil atomic power in The China Syndrome. It is now 119 years since Henri Becquerel discovered the radioactivity of uranium sulphate and slightly longer since Wilhelm Roentgen identified and named X-rays. Since then humanity has had an ambivalent relationship with radiation and radioactivity. We hope that they bring us significant benefits, but know that they also present substantial dangers.

Timothy Jorgensen's Strange Glow offers a tour d'horizon of the history and physics of radiation and radioactivity (not necessarily the same thing) and presents risk-benefit analyses of some important applications. His background as an academic working in radiation medicine should make him an ideal person to do this. His book aims to be useful, while at the same time emphasising the human aspects of the story.

Many of the case studies he includes are well researched and mostly reassuring. Who now remembers the scare stories that mobile phones will fry our brains? Jorgensen shows that our complacency is not misplaced. Few people in the UK seem to have worried too much about eating tuna from the Pacific that may have been contaminated by radioactivity from the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe. Once again, the science shows that there is no cause for concern. Contamination of the home by the naturally occurring radioactive gas radon also need not worry most of us. The book's section on diagnostic X-rays is very strong, with the discussion of mammography showing how difficult it can be to make good public health decisions. …

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