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 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Infinity Plus: Quintet (SF) - Keith Brooke (Ed.) ****

When I was younger there was nothing I liked better than a good, deep, dark (frankly, often downright miserable) science fiction story, and this collection delivers excellent modern examples that would have fit easily into a thoughtful if downbeat 70s collection such as the 'New Writing in SF' or the Interzone magazine of the day (one was actually first published in Interzone, in 1987 - the rest date between 1989 and 2010).

If I'm honest, I prefer more upbeat fiction now, but that doesn't stop me appreciating the quality of these five stories, put together by the SF website and publisher Infinity Plus. I've rarely seen a better contradiction of Margaret Atwood's putdown of science fiction as being limited to 'talking squids in outer space.' What we have here is pure character-driven storytelling with not a mention of space, spaceships, ray guns or aliens. It's the inner world, not the outer trappings of sci fi tropes that interest these writers.

On…

The Lost Planets - John Wenz **

Reading the first few lines of the introduction to this book caused a raised eyebrow. In 1600, it tells us, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake 'for his radical views - that not only was the Sun just one of many stars, but those stars likely had planets around them as well.' Unfortunately, this bends the truth. Bruno was burned at the stake for holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith - for conventional heretical beliefs amongst which his ideas on cosmology were trivial. This was an unfortunate start.

What John Wenz gives us is a people-driven story of the apparent early discovery of a number of planets orbiting other stars, made by Peter van de Kamp and his colleagues at Swarthmore College in America, most notably connected to a relatively obscure star called Barnard's star. Wenz is at his best dealing with personal conflict. The book really comes alive in a middle section where van de Kamp's discoveries are starting to be challenged. This chapter works wel…

Bone Silence (SF) - Alastair Reynolds *****

Of all the best modern SF writers, Alastair Reynolds is arguably the supreme successor to the writers of the golden age. He gives us wide-ranging vision, clever concepts and rollicking adventure - never more so than with his concluding book of the Ness sisters trilogy.

Neatly, after the first title, Revenger was written from the viewpoint of one sister, Arafura and the second, Shadow Captain, had the other sister Adrana as narrator, this book is in the third person. It neatly ties up many of the loose ends from the previous books, but also leaves vast scope for revelations to cover in the future if Reynolds decides to revisit this world (he comments in his acknowledgements 'I am, for the time being, done with the Ness sisters. Whether they are done with me remains to be seen.')

As with the previous books, the feel here is in some ways reminiscent of the excellent TV series Firefly, but with pirates rather than cowboys transported into a space setting. Set millions of years in…