Half Lives (Paperback)
The Unlikely History of Radium
Lucy Jane Santos
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'Half Lives shines a light on the shocking history of the world's toxic love affair with a deadly substance, radium. Unnerving, fascinating, informative and truly frightening.' Hallie Rubenhold, author of The Five
'The story of this supposed cure-all in everyday 20th century life is fascinating and well told.' Brian Maye, Irish Times
Lucy Jane Santos presents the surprising history of radium in everyday life.
Of all the radioactive elements discovered at the end of the 19th century, it was radium that became the focus of both public fascination and entrepreneurial zeal.
Half Lives tells the fascinating, curious, sometimes macabre story of the element through its ascendance as a desirable item – a present for a queen, a prize in a treasure hunt, a glow-in- the-dark dance costume – to its role as a supposed cure-all in everyday 20th-century life, when medical practitioners and business people (reputable and otherwise) devised ingenious ways of commodifying the new wonder element, and enthusiastic customers welcomed their radioactive wares into their homes.
Historian Lucy Jane Santos – herself the proud owner of a formidable collection of radium beauty treatments – delves into the stories of these products and details the gradual downfall and discredit of the radium industry through the eyes of the people who bought, sold and eventually came to fear the once-fetishized substance.
She reveals a new history of radium, one in which the stories of those previously dismissed as quacks and fools are brought to life, as part of a unique examination of the interplay between science and popular culture.
With verve and vivacity, Lucy Jane Santos conducts her readers on a unique tour of the twentieth century's most significant scientific discovery. Before the R-word threatened destruction, it offered hope for the future — teeth would glow white, cocktails would shine in the dark and cancer would be vanquished. This evocative account puts people and their emotions centre-stage of science's past.
Half Lives shines a light on the shocking history of the world's toxic love affair with a deadly substance, radium. Unnerving, fascinating, informative and truly frightening.
In Half Lives, Lucy Santos transports us back to a time when consumers wondered whether mixing radium into chicken feed might result in eggs that could hard-boil themselves; when diners cheerfully drank radioactive cocktails that glowed in the dark; and when people used toothpaste containing lethal thorium oxide in the pursuit of healthy gums. Santos unpicks fact from fiction and exhibits a masterful grasp of a complex area of science history that is so often mistold. Half Lives is a delightfully disturbing book that reminds us all of the age-old Latin maxim, 'caveat emptor.'
There was a time when radioactivity seemed to promise the future. It was the stuff that twentieth-century dreams were made of, before those dreams turned sour. This marvellous book explores the ways radioactivity stood for a better future, worked its way into money-making schemes of all kinds and offered hope to saints and charlatans. By doing all that – and doing it so well – it also offers a cautionary tale about the dangers of putting too much faith in simple technological solutions to all our problems.
A little gem of a book
Fascinating and well told
Truly mind-boggling … I became so engrossed I read most of it in one sitting
An engaging and definitive history
With wit and empathy, Santos tells the story of the entrepreneurs and consumers in radium's history who have until now been considered quacks, or fools, or both