Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation,
Timothy Jorgensen’s Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation has two purposes: to educate the lay public about the various real and imagined health risks radiation poses to humans and to tell “the story of radiation,” as his subtitle has it, from x rays to mobile phones. An accomplished radiation biologist, Jorgensen succeeds as a communicator of the current state of the fraught and fluid field in which he works. Strange Glow’s historical account is less adept, however. General audiences will likely struggle with an overabundance of detail, while historians of science will recognize their discipline’s original sin of presentism—using modern standards to judge the quality and value of historical scientific work.
The final third of the book, in which Jorgensen lands on his own professional turf, is the strongest. Jorgensen discusses how to evaluate radiation’s risks and rewards using examples drawn from contemporary accounts of Fukushima, the discovery of environmental radon, nuclear medicine, and dirty bomb threats. The anxieties and aspirations that those events have revealed in the contemporary zeitgeist are then further explored through his patient and clear explanation of how the prepared mind should evaluate risk.
Jorgensen’s approach has real value because people tend to reckon poorly with phenomena that span as many orders of magnitude as the variables involved in calculating radiation risks. He properly resists the temptation to simply instruct his audience not to fear the many sorts of radiation they may encounter and offers instead straightforward lessons in how to make calculations that will generally result in unfrightening conclusions about the dangers of cell phones or the abundant supply of uranium-bearing minerals in Earth’s crust.
The anecdotal approach applied to more distant times and places in the first two-thirds of the book, however, is not always as effective. Jorgensen uses vignettes on familiar topics related to radiation to loosely follow the evolution of scientific thought on the subject, from x rays and radioactivity to nuclear weapons and fallout, and perhaps to too many points in between. Strange Glow is ostensibly about the intersection of radiation and human health, and a firmer editorial hand could have profitably cut a number of passages tangential to that subject—for example, on the death of Topsy the Elephant, the development of radar, or the trigonometry used to calculate the release point for the Enola Gay bomb.
Furthermore, because of a persistent tendency to evaluate his actors by contemporary standards, Jorgensen’s narrative occasionally goes astray. Why were the charter generation of radiologists so cavalier in the face of the seemingly obvious dangers their machines presented to their own health? Even a partial answer requires a fairly deep dive into the martyr-venerating professional culture that arose among them, the persistent and plausible belief that most radiation-related symptoms actually came from ozone discharge, and the decades-long use of radiation burns on patients as an impromptu dosimeter during treatments.
Jorgensen, however, concludes that “common sense” was unevenly distributed among early radiation workers, and that these researchers were hurt “more [by] negligence than ignorance.” He acknowledges, in a section titled “Cutting the Pioneers Some Slack,” that fin de siècle scientists should be “forgiven” for not understanding their discoveries as clearly as we do. Yet he is willing to retrospectively grade Herman Muller’s political acumen, Marie Curie’s management of her laboratory, and the critics of radium-therapy pioneer Howard Kelly—all cases for which Strange Glow’s indulgence in presentism causes it to miss the complexity of the historical record.
At the outset, Jorgensen declares his intention that Strange Glow be “useful in practical ways” for nonscientists wishing to make sense of their irradiated world. The book’s careful and readable treatment of radiation’s risks and rewards will certainly succeed in tamping down tendencies toward unwarranted ray-phobia in contemporary culture. It’s probably safe to assume that lay readers looking for accessible information about radiation will not be especially bothered by Jorgensen’s departures from historians’ best practices. But neither will they profit from his retellings of radiation history as much as they would from reading some of his sources, like Bettyann Kevles’s Naked to the Bone: Medical Imaging in the Twentieth Century (Rutgers U. Press, 1997) or Spencer Weart’s recently reissued classic The Rise of Nuclear Fear (Harvard U. Press, 2012).
Strange Glow is flawed as a history, but accessible and useful as an intervention in the public’s practical understanding of radiation in the modern world.
Matthew Lavine is an associate professor of history at Mississippi State University in Starkville. A cultural historian of science, he specializes in the public understanding of radiation and radioactivity in the era before nuclear weapons.