Book review

Radioactivity – A History of a Mysterious Science, by Marjorie C. Malley, 267 pages, hardcover, ISBN 978-0-19-976641-3

Malley’s Radioactivity is a detailed account of the discovery of the phenomenon and its development into a science. Her history of radioactivity is extremely thorough, including, in addition to copious end notes and a complete bibliography, six appendices. These consist of a timeline from 1789 — discovery of uranium — through to 1975, a list of over 30 Nobel Laureates and a list of the more than 200 scientists mentioned in the text. A concept map is included linking numerous aspects of radioactivity mentioned throughout the book. The original and modern decay chains for uranium, radium, thorium and actinium are also included in these appendices.

Radioactivity is divided into three sections:  the development of the science of radioactivity and the players involved; the measuring and use of radioactivity; and radioactivity’s timelessness and global effect. Malley’s writing style is easy, comfortable and accessible to both the scientist and the layman. Anyone who wants to understand how radioactivity affected mankind from its infancy until its establishment in nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry will learn how radioactivity and its mysteries were unravelled by science — as well as how it birthed new forms of equipment, medicines and industries and transformed people and nations.

Radioactivity begins its journey in 1895 with the discovery of X-rays and new cathode rays. Very quickly Becquerel is introduced to the mix and the mysterious uranium rays he observed. Theories abounded and the bandwagon began to fill. We are introduced to the early life and rise of Marie Curie and her husband Pierre. Malley explores the historical background to allow the reader to get a true feeling for the individual scientists. Malley continues with the interesting stories behind Rutherford and Soddy and introduces us to the other players. Throughout the narrative we experience the thrill of each discovery and marvel at each one from our position a century later. It is fantastic to note the early, speculative theories of these brilliant physicists and chemists in the face of the unknown and unseen. You feel as if you are there at the time of the uncovering of the mystery. Malley has offered us a detailed and engaging narrative of this period of science.

For the teacher, Radioactivity provides crucial background not typically offered in traditional textbooks. For example, the derivation of the term “isotope” is clarified when juxtaposed against the struggle scientists had at the time. The discovery of the atomic nucleus was not just by Rutherford, as we teach, but many others who had proposed such an entity earlier. Indeed, as Malley notes, in Rutherford’s paper on scattering, he emphasized the scattering and glossed over the concept of the nucleus. For the teacher, having this additional background knowledge can put a broader face on the understanding of the atom.

Having covered the science, Malley moves to radioactivity’s impact in other spheres. In addition to the spawning of new and more effective equipment, radioactivity needed a standard of measurement, not surprisingly called, the curie. The effect of radioactivity on medicine became more widespread but the curious literally got burned. This was the case of researchers who tested radium on themselves and paid the price. The toll on scientists was enormous and labs and equipment became contaminated. Contamination became exacerbated by industry and lack of care or safety standards. Malley describes in detail the tragic toll on luminous dial painters* and others. This toll is a testament to the lack of knowledge and lack of due diligence of the time. I recall, as a child, marvelling at the device in the shoe store that allowed me to see the bones of my feet even through the shoes I was wearing. While the device certainly identified a good fit, I doubt anyone worried about or checked the intensity of the X-rays it was putting out.

Radioactivity affected people, society and governments both positively and negatively. This is dealt with even-handedly by Malley. One important positive was the action of scientific mentors for numerous young students, many of whom were women. Marie Curie in France, Rutherford and Soddy in England and Meyer in Austria were particularly strong mentors to women scientists. This is an interesting point of history to share with our students.

Radioactivity is an excellent book for both the chemistry and physics teachers and their students. Most teachers have little opportunity to delve into the history of the science and Malley has done this for us. The life and times of hundreds of scientists presented is excellent background knowledge for teachers. In addition, Radioactivity would make an excellent gift or award to a student who can both enjoy the thrill of discovery and understand the text. It is worth the price of admission just to read about the dilemma Rutherford and Soddy had in trying to sell transmutation to a skeptical scientific community.


  • Luminous dial painters, sometimes known as the Radium Girls were female factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials with glow-in-the-dark paint in New Jersey around 1917. Taken from (accessed November 1, 2012).