Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation by Timothy J Jorgensen - review by John Gribbin

John Gribbin

Half-Life Stories

Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation

By

Princeton University Press 490pp £24.95 order from our bookshop
 

I approached this book with low expectations. Ho-hum, I thought, a book about radiation written by a professor of radiation medicine. Probably some dull memoir by a retired old boy. How wrong I was. Strange Glow is a cracking good read, filled with fascinating stories about the people behind the science and covering vastly more of that science than I anticipated, in an accessible style.

The first delight is that Timothy Jorgensen deals with radiation in all its forms, starting with light and putting other kinds of electromagnetic radiation (such as X-rays) in context, as well as explaining the nature of particulate forms of radiation, such as the particle beams used to treat cancers. He starts with, as he puts it, ‘the basics’, a historical overview from Newton to nuclear fusion via X-rays and radium. Just occasionally the American view of the world seems slightly out of tune with my version of reality – as in ‘the British love their plum pudding’ – but this is a small price to pay for a friendly, jargon-free narrative.

In the second part of the book, which deals with the health effects of radiation, Jorgensen really comes into his own. The slightly grim stories of the scientific community’s emerging understanding of the occupational hazards of working with radioactive materials have a morbid fascination. Even the familiar tale of the

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