Strange but True

Strange Glow

Timothy Jorgensen

Princeton UP

One of mine from the Literary Review

I approached this book with low expectations.  Ho hum, I thought.  A book about radiation, written by a professor of radiation medicine.  Probably some dull memoir by a retired old boy.  How wrong I was. Strange Glow is a cracking good read, filled with fascinating stories about the people behind the science, and covering vastly more of that science than I anticipated, in an accessible style.

The first delight is that Timothy Jorgensen deals with radiation in all it’s forms, starting with light and putting other forms of electromagnetic radiation (such as X-rays) in context, as well as explaining the nature of particulate firms of radiation, such as the particle beams used to treat cancers.  He starts with, as he puts it, “the basics”, an historical overview from Newton to nuclear fusion via X-rays and radium.  Just occasionally the American view of the world seems slightly out of tune with my version of reality — as in “the British love their plum puddings” — but this is a small price to pay for a friendly, jargon-free narrative.

In the second part of his narrative, on the health effects of radiation, Jorgensen really comes into his own.  The slightly grim stories of the emerging understanding of the occupational hazards of working with radioactive materials have a morbid fascination. Even the familiar tale of the girls who painted radioactive paint onto the disks of luminous watches, and had a habit of licking their paint brushes, comes up fresh in his hands.  But I had not previously been aware that in Marie Curie’s lab in the 1920s workers had regular blood tests for anaemia.  When they showed signs of anaemia, the worker was sent to the country to recover a normal blood count before returning to work. Nobody realised that the effects of the radiation they experienced were cumulative, and lethal. It was this long term exposure that killed Marie herself.

Jorgensen’s expository skill is not limited to medicine. He is equally good at explaining microwave ovens, and at telling the story of the how the bombing run of the Enola Gay had to be calculated to minimise the risk to the aircraft from the Hiroshima bomb. And as he points out, only a relatively few people who lived on the fringes of the area destroyed by that bomb lived to suffer radiation sickness. “We have heard nothing from the shock wave and firestorm victims. .  .  Doubtless they would have told a completely different story about how atomic bombs affect health.”

This leads in to what is for me the heart of the book, as clear a presentation of what the kind of numbers used in assessing health risks really mean as I have seen.  Jorgensen neatly punctures the myth that mobile phones cause cancer, first pointing out that the alleged 40 per cent increase in risk is “feeble” compared with the 2,000 per cent increased risk from smoking, then demonstrating that the allegation is probably false anyway.  “Cell phones fail miserably as a cause for cancer,” he says, but as a good scientist he notes that this does not mean that it is impossible for cell phones to cause cancer, simply that “cell phones don’t meet even the minimum conditions that we would expect to see in epidemiology studies, if it were true.”  Good enough for me.  Similarly, headlines sometimes say things like “eating X doubles your risk of Y”. But what was the risk of Y anyway?  If it was one in a million, then eating X raises it to two in a million, which may not worry you. An example used by Jorgensen is the hypothetical possibility that a whole-body CT scan might give you a 0.1 per cent chance of cancer. The baseline figure for the chance of a US citizen dying from cancer is about 25 per cent. So the scan raised the risk to just 25.1 per cent.

Things were not quite so good for the workers involved in the cleanup after the Fukushima disaster. Nobody suffered radiation sickness, but just two workers received doses of radiation that increased their risk of dying from cancer from 25 per cent to 28 per cent.  Not quite the apocalypse. But Jorgensen reports the sad case of a Fukushima worker, not one of those two, who has decided he can never marry because no woman would want to chance having his deformed babies.  “This is a tragic example of how exaggerated fears of radiation can damage lives”.

Perhaps this book can do something to redress the balance. The author writes, “if I have done my job well, readers of this book will learn a tremendous amount about radiation and will find this information useful in many practical ways.”  He has, and they will.