Today’s review is on Radioactive! by Winifred Conkling.
Radioactive! tells the story of Irene Joliot-Curie and Lise Meitner, two women who’s scientific discoveries contributed to the study of radioactivity, and in the case of Lise Meitner, the discovery of nuclear fission, both of which would change the world in numerous ways. Unfortunately, for a long time neither of them received the credit they were due and they were almost forgotten by the world, in Meitner’s case it was due to a former colleague who tried to claim that she had no part in the discovery of nuclear fission and for Joliot-Curie, she was the daughter of the Curies and her parents accomplishments often overshadow those that she made with her husbands. Thankfully, scholars like Winifred Conkling are now telling their story and the contributions they made, as well as the story of their lives and the history of atomic energy that led up to their discoveries, as well as their reactions to what was done with their discoveries.
Radioactive! was a fascinating and informative book dealing with the discoveries made in physics, namely radioactivity and nuclear fission, and the two women who were at the forefront of these discoveries. Winifred Conkling does a great job of giving the pertinent scientific details without bogging down the text and conveys it in such a way that it isn’t hard to understand. Readers will also learn a lot about Irene Curie and Lise Meitner, two women, who I personally have never really heard of before, I’m sure like many other people.
One thing that become apparent especially with Lise Meitner and her discovery of nuclear fission is that there was a lot of drama in the scientific community (I can’t speak on whether this is still the case today.) Even though she was the first to come up with the theory based on notes of experiments her old lab partner – Otto Hahn – would send her after she had to flee from Nazi Germany, he never gave her the credit she deserved. In fact, after he initially vaguely mentioned that she had helped him, he turned on her and said that she had hindered him from making the discovery and that it was only once she had left that he was able to figure out nuclear fission. Again, this is false because he would often write to her when he was confused about the outcome of his experiments, and she finally figured and hypothesized what was going on, and she and her nephew conducted experiments to confirm her theory.
While what Otto Hahn did was reprehensible, in some ways it seems at first he was only doing it to save his own skin, and ally himself to the Nazis, especially since he had worked with Meitner for so long and she was considered a Jew by the Nazis. I think because she had been deemed inhuman due to her heritage he felt that it was okay to do this, even though they had worked together for 30 years. Unfortunately, this also meant that for many years, Lise Meitner did not get the credit she deserved because Hahn had done what he could to discredit all of her previous work with him. After the end of World War II he was given an opportunity to give her credit, instead he once again betrayed his old colleague and friend and accused her of being a bitter women who had stood in his way of discovering nuclear fission.
Even though this is a non-fiction book, the main theme of this book is probably how women have made discoveries that changed the world, but yet very few of them are known to us today due to various reasons. In Irene Curie’s case it was due to who her parents are, but yet here and her husband discovered ho to make artificial radioactivity, as well as find ways to harness nuclear fission so that it could be used as a “cleaner” source of electricity. Something else that stands out is how both Curie and Meitner were opposed to their discoveries being used to create the atomic bomb and being used as a weapon of mass destruction. It’s just fascinating, and one can imagine, horrifying to see something you discovered to be used in such a destructive way. However, their discoveries changed the world in other ways, for example, a lot of people rely on nuclear energy to power their homes, and it has been used as a safer way of powering submarines. The world has indeed changed a lot due to these discoveries.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book, especially since it is on a subject matter that I really enjoy reading and learning more about! I highly recommend this if you are interested in learning more about some the history behind radioactivity, but also just about these two women! 5/5 Stars.
Janelle L. C.