Mad On Radium: New Zealand in the Atomic Age
Rebecca Priestley, Auckland University Press ($45)
Recorded history has a peculiar inertia. Its status as a record often makes it seem somehow inevitable, representing the past as a preordained chronology of events which could never have happened in any other way. It’s a beautiful thing when a book is able to cut through that stillness and remind us that the world has always been a place of great complexity, fluidity and hugely unintended outcomes. In this book, Rebecca Priestley provides us with the full, chaotic history of New Zealand’s engagement with nuclear materials. Mad on Radium looks back to our embrace of earliest Radium health treatments, through governmental attempts at establishing nuclear weapons laboratories and beyond Don Brash’s manoeuvres toward allowing nuclear ships in our ports.
Priestley’s greatest achievement is in unearthing a trove of forgotten information which not only reminds us of the ways in which our society has changed but suggests how it may be altered in the future, as our calculus of nuclear risk is informed by shifting interpretations of its risks and putative benefits. Her handling of the book’s scientific background is equally deft, drawing historical and technical information together in a single, engaging thread.
Mad on Radium is a great read for anyone with an interest in science, history or New Zealand politics; like the best historical writing, it tells us where we’ve been so we may decide where else to go.
Alex Mitcalfe Wilson, Unity Wellington
Or check out a review of the launch for Mad on Radium, which we had in store at Unity Wellington in mid 2012.