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The Story of Radiation

People like to get their learning in the form of stories. If you tell an engaging and compelling story, people will learn something from it and they will retain that knowledge. So that’s what I attempt to do in Strange Glow. The book is the story of man’s encounters with radiation, and how mankind has been transformed by the experience. The story is told with an emphasis on the human aspects, and it is told from a health-centric perspective. The goal is to integrate the technological aspects of radiation within the human experience and, thereby, remove some of the mystery and misunderstanding that surrounds radiation. Nevertheless, this is not a book about lessening your fear of radiation. Fear is a very subjective emotion, driven by many factors. The only thing that this book can achieve is to present the facts about radiation as objectively and evenhandedly as possible, leaving its readers to decide for themselves which aspects of radiation they should fear.

Another purpose of this book is to dispel the myth that the subject of radiation risks is so complicated that it is beyond the capability of ordinary people to grasp, leaving as their only recourse reliance on radiation “experts.” This is simply not true. Intelligent people, even those lacking any technical background, should be able to understand the fundamental principles that drive radiation risk and make their own decisions about how large a threat radiation poses to them individually and to society at large. This book seeks to convince people that they can be masters of their own radiation fate, and to empower them to make their own well-informed decisions about their personal radiation exposures.

Lastly, this book is an experiment in risk communication. The open question is whether radiation risks can be characterized accurately and effectively without reliance on a lot of mathematics, tables, and graphs. These highly quantitative approaches have proved to be largely ineffective in communicating the essence of risk to the public. This book is devoid of graphs and tables and keeps the mathematics to a minimum. Instead, it tries to instill a sense of the magnitude of the threat through a historical scientific narrative about the people who encountered radiation of various types and dose levels, and the health consequences of those exposures. In this way, we can get an accurate sense of the level of the radiation hazard even without a detailed understanding of the underlying technology.

If I have done my job well, all readers of this book will enjoy interesting stories of scientific discovery while, at the same time, learn a tremendous amount about radiation. They should also find their new understanding of radiation personally useful in many practical ways. I hope you will find it so.

Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation