“Strange Glow”

Timothy J. Jorgensen

A few days before Christmas 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen told his wife about a secret experiment.

While studying the movement of electrons in something called a Crookes tube, he’d noticed that whenever he turned on the electric device, a strange, faint glow would appear on a fluorescent screen on the other side of the room.

The glow continued when he blocked the space between the tube and screen with books, and when he placed his hand in front of the screen he was astonished to see the shadow of his bones. It was as though invisible rays were coming from the tube, penetrating some substances but not others. Having no idea what they were, he called them X-rays. When he showed his wife the bones in her own hand, the skeletal image horrified her and she exclaimed, “I have seen my own death!”

When German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen showed his wife an X-ray of her hand, she was horrified. (Radiology Centennial Incorporated and the American College of Radiology)

Timothy J. Jorgensen recounts this in “Strange Glow.” Subtitled “The Story of Radiation,” the book is actually the story of human interaction with radiation — beginning with the one type that we can see (light) and continuing through radio waves, atomic blasts, cellphones, radon, microwave ovens, luggage scanners, the Fukushima accident, and on and on.

Jorgensen, a professor and director of the Health Physics and Radiation Protection Graduate Program at Georgetown University, avoids graphs and numbers, instead relying largely on entertaining — if alarming — anecdotes.

You learn about Marie Curie, buried in a lead-lined coffin out of fears that her body was radioactive because of her Nobel Prize-winning work with radium. You meet Stanley Watras, who set off radiation detectors as he headed into his job at a nuclear plant after only a few months of living in a home with radon in the basement. You read about how fishermen on the Japanese boat Lucky Dragon No. 5 came under radioactive “snowfall” from an H-bomb test — and who, while being treated in a hospital, were inadvertently given blood contaminated with hepatitis virus and got liver disease.

Jorgensen isn’t trying to scare us. He just wants us to understand the risks of these rays so we are better able to travel through a modern world “where radiation presents itself at every turn.” He adds: “Good luck on your journey.”