The explosive and sometimes reckless exploitation of Rontgen and Becquerel's discoveries produced medical technologies that dramatically added to the diagnostic and therapeutic tools available to physicians. But the consequences for some of the pioneers were dreadful and it took decades to understand and control them. Later, the exploitation of discoveries of nuclear physics led, from the 1940s, to nuclear weapons and nuclear power with overwhelming potential for harm. The genetic damage seen in earlier animal experiments was the first concern but, as the long-term results of the A-bombs dropped on Japan emerged, it became clear in the 1960s and 70s that cancer was the most serious health effect. Quite how radiation damages cells and causes the effects it does has been studied since the earliest days and, since the leap forward that came with understanding the significance of DNA, there has been remarkable progress. However, it is still not fully understood and some key elements remain controversial – notably the likelihood of effects at very low doses. Our knowledge is still largely based on the Japanese experience but there are new data emerging as epidemiological studies become better coordinated and are combined.

While our understanding of how radiation damages has evolved so has our knowledge of its sources: we now know that the largest one for most people is the natural world around us. It is an understanding that has been won through undramatic work developing measurement techniques and defining key concepts and quantities. This has also given us an understanding of the effects of radioactivity taken into our bodies and this, in turn, has allowed us to compare quite different sources of radiation: medical procedures, natural radiation, nuclear power.

Measuring and understanding is one thing; control is another. The first successes were the rather crude recommendations for the control of the exposures of early physicians. While they reduced the horrendous acute injuries, they could not recognise the more insidious possibilities of cancer. Their central idea was that there was a threshold level of dose below which effects were insignificant - and this persisted until well after the Second World War. The dominant notion that followed – all radiation carries some risk of cancer, increasing as the dose increases - posed new challenges for protection. If all radiation can cause harm, how are we to balance that with the benefits some of it brings? This became a key question from the early 1970s and remained one until the end of the century.

Taming the Rays is a history of the use of X-rays and nuclear radiation but, primarily, of the understanding and management of the dangers they pose. Soon after Rontgen and Becquerel made their discoveries in the final years of the 19th century physicians adopted the technology and scientists have since found many new applications, most significantly those connected with nuclear fission. The book traces how the risks associated with the technologies – and with the naturally-occurring sources of radiation - have been understood, expressed and assessed. It has often been a controversial enterprise and certainly one of the more complex of intellectual endeavours undertaken on an international scale. It has not been a strictly scientific one since the physics, chemistry and biology have necessarily been translated into concepts and standards that can be communicated and used to set standards. The book explores these themes and traces how they have evolved through reference to original research and the thinking of national and international organisations with responsibilities for advising on protection.

Second Edition published 2018

ISBN: 978-0-9575549-8-6

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