The fascinating, curious, and sometimes macabre history of radium as seen in its uses in everyday life.
Of all the radioactive elements discovered at the end of the nineteenth 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 twentieth-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.
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.
Half Lives is a new history of radium as part of a unique examination of the interplay between science and popular culture.
Historian Santos tracks the history of a mysterious element in her sweeping debut. Radium is not just a scientific marvel, Santos writes, but has also had a profound impact on popular culture; in addition to covering the well-known work of Marie and Pierre Curie, she surveys how the element was used in the X-ray machine first manufactured by Thomas Edison, played a part in experimental 19th-century medical treatments, has been touted as a miracle tool in alternative therapies (such as radon spas), and sat at the center of medical fraud in the early 1900s when a fake doctor claimed he could use it to cure cancer. The element has even thrived in the arts radium paint was invented in 1902 and in the early 20th century became "a status symbol and an acknowledgement of the latest in scientific popularism." Santos keeps the science accessible, and her survey is full of fun facts: "If you are scared of radioactivity, then I am going to start with some bad news... you are radioactive." This is sure to please scientific minds and history buffs alike.