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Radioactivity: A History of a Mysterious Scienceby Marjorie Caroline Malley
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Synopses & Reviews
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.
Before the hydrogen bomb indelibly associated radioactivity with death, many chemists, physicians, botanists, and geneticists believed that radium might hold the secret to life. Physicists and chemists early on described the wondrous new element in lifelike terms such as "decay" and "half-life," and made frequent references to the "natural selection" and "evolution" of the elements. Meanwhile, biologists of the period used radium in experiments aimed at elucidating some of the most basic phenomena of life, including metabolism and mutation.
From the creation of half-living microbes in the test tube to charting the earliest histories of genetic engineering, Radium and the Secret of Life highlights previously unknown interconnections between the history of the early radioactive sciences and the sciences of heredity. Equating the transmutation of radium with the biological transmutation of living species, biologists saw in metabolism and mutation properties that reminded them of the new element. These initially provocative metaphoric links between radium and life proved remarkably productive and ultimately led to key biological insights into the origin of life, the nature of heredity, and the structure of the gene. Radium and the Secret of Life recovers a forgotten history of the connections between radioactivity and the life sciences that existed long before the dawn of molecular biology.
About the Author
Marjorie C. Malley was involved with science and mathematics education for many years, including teaching, curriculum development, and consulting. Her publications include articles on radioactivity, luminescence, the nature and history of science, and biographical subjects. Dr. Malley was a member of the review panel for the National History Standards and is a past chair of the Education Committee of the History of Science Society.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
I. A NEW SCIENCE
Chapter 1. The Beginnings
Rays and Radiation
Chapter 2. The Curies
A Consequential Meeting
Chapter 3. Rutherford, Soddy, Particles, and Alchemy?
Rutherford and the Rays
Where did the Energy come from?
Material Rays? Discovery of the Beta Particle
A Missed Discovery
The Alpha Particle
Chapter 4. The Radioactive Earth
How Old is the Earth?
A New Property of Matter?
Chapter 5. Speculations
Radioactivity and Probability
Kinetic Models of the Atom
Chapter 6. Radioactivity and Chemistry
The Rise of Radiochemistry
Chemistry of the Imponderable
The End of the Lines
Chapter 7. Inside the Atom
The Nucleus and the Periodic Table
The Gamma Rays
Theories of the Nucleus
Chapter 8. Sequel
Radioactivity during World War I
From Radioactivity to Nuclear and Particle Physics
II. MEASURING AND USING RADIOACTIVITY
Chapter 9. Methods and Instruments
Standardizing the Measures
Size, Money, and Machines
Chapter 10. Radioactivity, Medicine, and Life
From Burns to Therapy
Rays and other Organisms
Dangers in the Laboratory
Chapter 11. New Industries
Soaring Demand and New Institutions
Paint that Glowed in the Dark
A New Poison
Fission, Bombs, and the Uranium Rush
Radioactivity and the Oil Industry
III. BEYOND THE STORY
Chapter 12. Radioactivity's Prime Movers
Technology, Resources, and Professional Changes
Scientific Ideals and Culture
Mentors and Models
Age, Attitudes, and Ambition
Chapter 13. Radioactivity and Timeless Questions: the Quest for Understanding
Models and Theories for Radioactivity
Patterns in Radioactivity's Development
Ideas about Change
Ideas about Matter and Energy
Ideas about Continuity and Discontinuity
Chapter 14. The Imaginative Appeal of a Discovery
Mythological and Romantic Dimensions of Radioactivity
An Ongoing Task
1. Glossary of Rays and Radiations
2. Family Trees for Radioactive Elements
3. Radioactivity's Elusive Cause
4. Nobel Prize Winners Included in this Book
5. Radioactivity's Web of Influence
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