The radiation century is coming to a close
Editorial from Radioactive Times Volume 3, Number 2, October 1999 (content not updated)
In the children's encyclopaedias Roentgen, who began it all in 1895, is pictured as a smug but benign Victorian scientist in a tweed suit. He demonstrates the bones of his wife's hand, the wedding ring dividing the third finger. Roentgen, a physicist, calls the invisible rays "x-rays", because in mathematics X stands for the unknown.
Henri Becquerel, the other half of this first peek into Pandora's box, suffered severe skin burns whilst carrying a phial of radioactive material in his waistcoat pocket. Edison's assistant, Clarence Dallow, experimented with x-ray tubes and died of cancer after his arm had to be amputated. Similar tragedies piled up. After the first World War the radium dial painters were dying horribly after moistening their brushes on their tongues and transferring tiny quantities of Radium into their bodies. They were unable to persuade the physicists of the time that it was the Radium that was killing them. Marie Curie, who discovered this element and has now been appropriately transmuted into a cancer charity, was dying of leukaemia.
I recall the Victorian illustration of Pandora's Box in the book of myths I had as a child. I expect you know the one -- an astonished and scatty looking young girl has the lid of the trunk up and a host of unlikely bat-like creatures is whizzing about the room, followed by fairy "Hope".
There is a more appropriate tableau. You are in a darkened room, but what you are looking at is a shaft of sunlight, on which motes of dust dance and flicker and sparkle. Occasionally a point of dazzling light explodes and is extinguished.
If we could see ionising radiation, this is how the dust would appear, even in the dark. The world is full of dust. From 1945 to the end of the century atmospheric weapons testing, nuclear accidents, and licensed radioactive releases have contaminated the dust, like everything on the planet, with the contents of Pandora's Box, and it is invisibly killing young and old alike in horrible ways.
The scientific and military experiment has released unstable and completely novel substances with numbers attached to them - like convicts: Strontium-90, Plutonium-239, Caesium-137, Iodine-131, Tellurium-132. They are out there in the world and cannot be put back into the box. The contaminated food is eaten, babies innocently drink the poisoned milk, inhale the radioactive particles in the air. The demons are now inside your body. Everything is invisibly sparkling: the food, the milk, bones and teeth, all living tissue. I am reminded of the sparkly pink and silver plastic that Barbie's artefacts are often made of.
The cancer rate rises inexorably. The Governments of the world, advised by the bought, the biased and the stupid, pour money into cancer research and continue to hold open the lid of the chest. Let us call an end to the nuclear experiment. Where is Fairy Hope?
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