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A Field Guide to Radiation

Fenella Saunders

A Field Guide to Radiation. Wayne Biddle. 239 pp. Penguin, $15.

Although the title A Field Guide to Radiation may conjure up images of ecotourists searching Chernobyl or Fukushima for invisible quarry such as alpha particles and gamma rays, Wayne Biddle’s new book is instead an everyday guide to the radiation to which we are all constantly exposed. It consists of short, pithy essays laid out in alphabetical order, from “Absorbed Dose” to “Zirconium-93, -95.”

The guide, says Biddle, “is not pro- or anti-radiation any more or less than a field guide to reptiles is pro- or anti-snake.” His goal is to sort out the personal implications of news reports and other data so regular people can make informed choices. And the essays contain plenty of historical and factual information; readers will learn where various radioactive elements comes from and how much exposure is considered safe. But these facts are often accompanied by commentary, and in some cases he seems to be shaking his head at past uses of radioactive material. In one of the book’s lengthier essays, he notes that up to the 1970s, thousands of infants were treated with radium for harmless skin blemishes, which led to increased cancer rates among these people. The world seemed to be giddy about radium for a time, experimenting with it as a cure for everything from mental disorders to hearing loss.

Although Biddle is quick to point out that some “safer” forms of radiation do have legitimate medical uses, he advises patients to ask questions and monitor their exposures. His tone for much of the book is cautionary and thoughtful, but sometimes he succumbs to downright silliness, as when, in the entry for the element yttrium (named after the Swedish village of Ytterby) he mysteriously exclaims “Ytt-ytt!”

Biddle emphasizes that there is no really safe way to store or dispose of nuclear material, which makes our planet “newly hostile.” We can’t detect radiation with our human senses, and we can’t get away from it. But his hope is that this utilitarian handbook will help mitigate the risk.—Fenella Saunders

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