Reviewed by Cary Seidman
For the advanced high school or college undergraduate interested in the history of science, this book will provide a fascinating view of 30 years of discovery and innovation in chemistry and physics. Malley begins her story in 1896 with Wilhelm Roentgen’s discovery of what came to be called the x–ray and, at about the same time, the work on the radioactive properties of uranium by Antoine–Henri Becquerel. Methodically but lucidly she works through the contributions of the Curies, Ernest Rutherford, Frederick Soddy, Hans Geiger, Otto Hahn, and others whose names may be less well known.
For the reader seeking a comprehensive, technical explanation of radioactive decay, this may not be the best resource. Still, there is plenty of detailed information here, and the book has a great deal to recommend it. In addition to her narrative of chemistry and physics milestones in radioactivity, Malley places her subject in the larger picture of early twentieth century history. The reader learns how industries arose, how medical science embraced these newly found forms of energy, how radiation studies became useful in archaeology, and how scientists’ view of the nature of matter underwent a fundamental shift. The author effectively evokes the sense of awe that accompanied the realizations that elements can undergo transmutation and that some new elements were so short lived that new instrumentation was required to document their existence. At a time when the understanding of chemistry included the assumption that reactions had a beginning and an end, researchers found themselves tackling the question of how a reaction (radioactive emissions resulting in new material being formed) could continue indefinitely.
Young women with an interest in the physical sciences will find that the story of radioactivity includes a number of important female scientists, including Marie Curie and Lise Meitner, whose contributions are described in detail. For all the great work done by the researchers whose work Malley recounts, the generation of scientists that included the Curies, Rutherford, et al, were not able to unlock the secrets of radioactivity’s origin and penetrating power. Malley’s excellent book places the contributions of the many luminaries of the pioneering work in radioactivity in an appropriate and interesting historical context. Radioactivity is a welcome and much needed addition to the history of a new science.
Review posted on 6/19/2012