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Radioactivity: A History of a Mysterious Science [Hardcover]

Marjorie C. Malley
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)

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Book Description

August 25, 2011 019976641X 978-0199766413 1
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.

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Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, August 2011: From Marie Curie to x-rays to the Manhattan Project, Radioactivity traces the history of atomic physics and its transformation from a fringe science into a field that seized the popular and political imagination with discovery after spectacular discovery. Marjorie C. Malley shows that the discovery of radioactivity had profound consequences besides The Bomb: it allowed women more opportunities to become scientists; it helped doctors treat cancer and diagnose battlefield wounds more effectively; it prompted scientists to reconsider some of the most fundamental rules of physics. And inevitably, it became yet another arena for political gamesmanship during the early 20th century. Like the Very Short Introductions series, Radioactivity is an efficient and straightforward guide to the history of a science whose endpoints are well-known, but whose growth and development have remained underappreciated for a long time. --Darryl Campbell


"Malley does a wonderful job of demonstrating how scientific discovery functions, as opposed to the usual approach in which facts and figures are given as tidbits along a chronology. Strongly recommended for history of science collections, high school science students, and anyone curious about radioactivity and the history of science." Library Journal

"Looking back in time, it's often hard to know what all the fuss was about. What is so strange about one element decaying into another. Malley does a wonderful job of showing the uncertainty and confusion of that time and how scientists worked their way to a new understanding of the atom." -- Chemical Heritage, Spring 2012

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (August 25, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 019976641X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199766413
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5.9 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #864,676 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A matter of decay September 17, 2011
By A. Hall
Format:Kindle Edition
Marjorie has done a reasonable job although I must say that in places information was lacking-especially on subjects pertinent to the central thrust- such as what radiation and radioactive decay actually is?. I would have expected some discourse on say Fermi decay or half-lives, why some elements are stable and others are not, The Weak Force, how damage occurs in biological tissues due to free radicals-you know basic nuclear 101 physics fodder? That said I'll give this the thumbs up pretty much like Atomic Power: Necessary Evil or Virtually Uncontrollable Force that's Wrecking the Planet? which has a misleading title but is a good source of info on radiation and nuclear chemistry.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars NIce Little Book, but it is only an appetizer! September 5, 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I am a chemist and have read extensively about science yet I found the book enjoyable although a bit of a tease. I felt the author skimmed some aspects of the story and completely ignored a scientific explanation of radioactivity. Nevertheless it is a good read.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Radioactivity: A History of a Mysterious Science, written by Marjorie C Malley, is a non-fiction detailing the history of Radioactivity and how it captivated the imagination of the scientific community as well as the industry, politicians, and the general public.

Radioactivity was not just another scientific phenomenon. It created a new branch of study in itself, had a profound impact on the society, international politics, war, business and industry and medical sciences.

This is a very geeky book with lots of scientific jargon which a non-technical person may not be able to understand without considerable effort. However, readers who have relevant technical background will find it a good and interesting read.

I loved the portions of the book which contained the stories of the researchers, even more than the technical stuff. I was interesting to know how the personality traits, education, background and even religious beliefs of the researchers shape the way they hypothesized and tried to explain radioactivity. Life stories of Marie Curie and other researchers of the era was fascinating and heart warming at the same time (the biography of the Curies is on me "To read" list now). I was also surprised to know the sheer number of scientists who got noble prizes for their discoveries related to radioactivity. It was also very interesting to read about the effect of politics, war, and economics on the development of this field of study.

On the flip side, the book misses out on a lot of interesting recent developments in this field. I was anticipating a section on nuclear power industry, all the associated controversies and the role this industry has played in international politics. Also, there is a lot of interesting history related to nuclear warfare industry, which could have made the book much more interesting and appealing for an average reader.

Overall it is a well written book, meant for a very niche audience.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars basic, focused understanding January 6, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Malley does a fine job of tracing the history of radioactivity from the end of the 19th century to WWII. She explains what radioactivity is, how it was discovered and the resulting uses of it. She also goes into some detail about the science behind its discovery and how it corresponded with the discovery of relationships in the periodic table itself and the notion that elements should be organized around atomic number and not atomic weight. There is some explication of the atom and isotopes as well. Malley does a nice job of showing how the science of radiation allowed for greater understanding of other areas of science (this is particularly evident in her chapter in the appendix on radioactivity's elusive cause. Here she goes into the strong force, the electrostatic force, wave mechanics, half lives and the weak force. This section is well worth reading on its own for a primer of radioactivity and quantum mechanics).

The ending chapters are the weakest. They are very over general and provide little insight into radiation itself. Or how radiation is used/viewed today. They seem to be attached simply to make the book longer. I would read Part I and Part II for their introduction to radioactivity and its role in science and leave Part III alone. The appendixes are also worthwhile.

There is a glossary at the end of the book and other useful appendixes. She includes noble prize winners associated with radioactivity, the relationships among different radioactive elements and their isotopes, and a detailed timeline.

If I were a student studying the elements and chemistry at the turn of the 19th century, I would find this book a very accessible introduction to radioactivity as it relates to chemistry and physics.
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2.0 out of 5 stars disappointing February 15, 2014
By yoichi
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The topic and content are well thought out, and interesting. But, it lacks depth. I expected more on physics as well as medical application. Furthermore, almost half of the book is appendix or notes.
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5.0 out of 5 stars This is a great book! October 21, 2013
Firstly, it is exceptionally well written, in an easy-to-understand method. Secondly, you won't need to be an expert on the topic by any means. I look forward to checking out any other books Majorie has written.
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