Mad on Radium

By Grant Jacobs 12/12/2012

(Still trying to complete the Christmas shopping list? I’m going to bring to you a couple of book reviews for readers who like more than the latest ‘trashy’ thriller.)

New Zealand wasn’t always anti-nuclear. In fact, as New Zealand writer Rebecca Priestley shows us, it was distinctly pro-nuclear.

Mad on Radium explores the corners of how the ‘nuclear age’ came to New Zealand and New Zealanders’ responses to it, their involvement in it.

It’s revealing to peer back into our recent past and see how it was, rather than what we now portray ourselves as. There’s intriguing titbits throughout, accompanied by many photographs, cartoons, advertisements and posters.

It’s probably not appreciated by younger New Zealanders that New Zealand provided some scientists for the Manhattan project, that New Zealand supported the British bomb tests in the Pacific, that radium was a popular ‘healthy’ product marketed to consumers.

The illustrations are excellent and tell their own stories. One map shows the proposed effects of ‘Atomic bombing of Wellington City’. Who remembers annual x-rays for tuberculosis, featured in one poster: ‘Make a date for MASS X-RAY’.

One measure of a strong non-fiction work is the ease that deep research and understanding flows naturally and easily in the text, rather than is forced out or stilted. It reflects the writer being comfortable with the material – in this case the work of Priestley’s Ph.D. thesis in the history and philosophy of science.

Some idea of the breath of the material can be gotten from the chapter headers:

  • Nuclear-free New Zealand: myth or reality? (Author’s preface)
  • Some fool in a laboratory: The atom bomb and the dawn of the atomic age
  • Cold War and re-hot science: The nuclear age comes to the Pacific
  • Uranium fever?: Uranium prospecting on the West Coast
  • There’s strontium-90 in my milk: Safety and public exposure to radiation[1]
  • Atoms for peace: Nuclear science in New Zealand in the atomic age
  • Nuclear decision: Plans for nuclear power
  • A new national identity: Becoming ‘nuclear-free’
  • Nuclear-free New Zealand: Can we take it for granted? (Conclusion)

Mad on Radium is a substantial book, an excellent and thoughtful read that exposes all the aspects of our nuclear past and present with plenty of interesting gems for readers.

Scientists will be reminded that Marsden, whose name features on the Marsden research grants and the Marsden Medal, was a strong advocate for nuclear science and technology. The tale of how New Zealand science grew to appreciate the safety issues with radioactive material is well told. Those with a political bent will learn the actual path New Zealand took to it’s present position and the players involved. Others will see careers and issues in New Zealand they perhaps had never considered.

Perhaps my only real disappointment was that the cover doesn’t glow![2]

Update The cover does glow after all, but with my short-sightedness I have to practically press my nose onto the cover to see it clearly.[3] (No, I’m not as bad as Leonard groping his way around his bedroom or partner.[4]) For some reason I didn’t test the spine earlier. The main title and author’s name on the spine are in white, with the subtitle in the same green as the on the front cover. The white text glows quite strongly.


My copy is a review copy, courtesy of Auckland University Press.

1. I have my own strontium story – it featured on the label of minerals present in bottled water I bought in Kashgar, Xinjiang province, China. (There’s a wider story to this, but let’s stick to Priestley’s book. The story here is that strontium levels in milk reflected the weapons testing programs in the Pacific.

2. Around the same time as starting on Mad on Radium I received a book from an on-line bookstore. It came with a bookmark featuring dinosaurs (what else?) that I used to mark my progress through Mad on Radium. One night I an ominous glow from the top of my bedside cabinet was keeping me awake. After some fumbling around I realised the dinosaurs were fluorescent.

3. Apart from getting this wrong, it’s frustrating to learn it late as I tested it thinking it’d be a good talking point for the review, perhaps for the title or lede.

4. C’mon, do I have to say ‘Big Bang Theory’?

Book details

Title: Mad on Radium – New Zealand in the atomic age.

Author: Rebecca Priestley

Publisher: Auckland University Press (2012)

Contents: Author’s preface (7 pages), Body text (252 pages), Notes (10 pages), Selected Bibliography (13 pages), Index (9 pages).

ISBN: 978-1-86940-727-8

Some other book reviews in Code for life:

Seduced by logic

The Panic Virus

Reviewing Deadly Choices

A Geek Nation reviewed

A forensic scientist tells it like it is

Book review – The Poisoner‘s Handbook

0 Responses to “Mad on Radium”

  • The cover does glow! Maybe not as brightly as your dinosaurs but the green ink on the cover is fluorescent, you just need to charge it up under a light source first.

    Glad you liked the book :-).


  • I did actually try that, as that was what I was kind-of hoping!

    Maybe it’s got something to do with lousy Dunedin Spring weather?!

    I’ll give it another go…

    It’s good book! Can I ask how long it took you to write? You’d at least have the advantage of having material at hand, I suppose, being drawn from your thesis – ?

    Sometime I’d like to try write a book myself. I had thoughts to try something on epigenetics, but that looks to be coming over-populated already. (Besides realistically I’d need some financial support to help me write it as it’d drain time from my work.)

  • How long did it take to write? If I count it from after I finished the thesis, it was about another year of part-time work, including some really intense periods. Best results when I locked myself in a room for three or four days and came out with a couple of good chapters. But that was working from an existing thesis – there were only a few places where I did extra research, mostly it was a matter of culling, editing and rewriting. As for the thesis, well that took half my adult life (again, part time, with babies and other books).

    Try charging the book cover under a strong light bulb.

    • I had better luck last night. I’ll update the article later today – busy day so that might not happen until the evening.

  • I’ve added an update to the end of the review to correct my comment on the cover glowing – it does, of course.

    Sorry to take so long to bring this update – it’s that time of year…