Skip to main content

Radioactivity – Marjorie C. Malley ****

Don’t judge a book by its cover, my old gran used to say (and some of the covers of the books she read certainly proved she believed what she said), but in practice it is difficult advice to follow. Covers have a huge impact on our approach to a book – and combined with an old-fashioned feeling title this one screamed ‘dull textbooky kind of thing at me.’ Luckily, though, I resisted the urge to lose it at the bottom of the review pile, because Radiationhas a lot going for it.
Marjorie Malley divides her book into three main sections. The first, biggest, and best gives us the history of the discovery of radioactivity and the development of the theory of what was going on. The second, which is quite interesting, looks at the applications of radioactivity. And the third, which isn’t very interesting at all, seems to be a sort of ‘put radioactivity into context’ that did very little for me. But that doesn’t matter, because that first section is so good.
It’s not that the material itself was all that new to me. I had read plenty, for example, about the Curies and their work, or about Rutherford. But what I found absolutely fascinating – and it’s something I’ve hardly ever come across in popular science writing – is the way that Malley makes us time travellers, g the feel for exactly what people were thinking and saying as work on radioactivity progressed. Instead of getting a sanitised story with a logical building of ideas, we travelled down all sorts of dead ends and incorrect theories. At times it could be quite confusing, not knowing which bits would later be proved correct, but it gave a much better feel for the nature of such scientific discovery than a typical book on the subject.
As a science writer myself I’m in awe of the work that must have gone into getting that changing perspective as we move through the timeline. It’s magnificent. So even though the middle section on applications is rushed and the final section did nothing for me, I’d still highly recommend this slim book for a great insight into an important period and series of events in the history of science.

Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Superior - Angela Saini *****

It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinct…

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …