By Matthew Lavine
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Extra resources for The First Atomic Age: Scientists, Radiations, and the American Public, 1895-1945
For the most part, this book will deal with x-rays and radium, and only incidentally with other forms or sources of radiation. Those two things attracted the lion’s share of attention from the nonscientist American public, and they came to stand in for the broader phenomena themselves in virtually every instance. Many newspaper articles that took as their subject the phenomenon of radioactivity made no mention, even in passing, of any other element. Likewise, even as x-rays were slotted onto the electromagnetic spectrum, and understood by those paying attention to be different from visible light or radio waves only in their wavelength, virtually no discussion of them provided the laity with any rhetorical connection between x-rays and any other form of electromagnetic energy except for the gamma rays emitted from the nucleus, and later cosmic rays.
The radium craze followed much the same channels through the press landscape as the x-rays had, with the addition of a mild note of self-awareness the second time around. “The radium craze is having its run through the news weeklies and monthlies of the world” the Wichita Eagle sardonically began an editorial blurb a few months into it. ”28 The article then immediately listed the virtues of radium as a cancer therapy; the barb was not at the discovery but at its reception. The following month, a tongue-in-cheek article appeared in a Buffalo newspaper about a man who presented himself to a police sergeant as the representative of the Queen of Bavaria with $240 billion worth of radium (or two tons at the going rate) to sell, whereupon he was remanded to an insane asylum.
Progress in that arena came in unpredictable fits and starts, beginning with the spectacular unexpectedness of their discovery. The “naughty” rays’ refusal to be effectively packed away in a black box, or rendered safe, or even be easily reconciled with the laity’s intuitive physical understanding of the world, was a goad that made them perennially difficult to ignore. * * * Ionizing electromagnetic radiation and radioactive emissions are fundamentally different phenomena. As will become apparent in the central chapters of this work, the difference between the two as such was less clear in most laypersons’ minds than was the distinction between x-rays and radium, the archetypal and most important exemplars of each.