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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptical Inquirer > Sept/Oct 2018 > From the Spectral to the Spectrum Radiation in the Crosshairs

From the Spectral to the Spectrum Radiation in the Crosshairs

Public attitudes about radiation, shaped by a rich history of mythology from biblical times to the modern events of Chernobyl and Fukushima, impact personal lives and decisions, but they also have global existential implications.

Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen shocked the world in 1895 when he produced the first radiograph of the human body: an his wife’s hand. Whether intentional or that he chose her hand for this epic experiment was fitting because the hand has, through the ages, been an important cultural symbol. In this case, the radiograph of Anna Roentgen’s hand signaled a landmark scientific achievement that was rapidly adopted in many countries.

Roentgen’s discovery occurred during the Victorian Era, a time when other scientific discoveries such as the telegraph, photography, the electric light bulb, the telephone, and radio were made, to name just a few. The Victorian Era, extending from 1837 to 1901, was characterized at the beginning by the strong, pervasive religion of the Church of England. The tension between religion and science was minimal in the early years. As Aileen Fyfe noted, “… religious faith and the sciences were generally seen to be in beautiful accordance … mediated by some form of theology of nature” (Fyfe 2012). This era was one of increasingly robust scientific activity, however, and as the twentieth century approached, the tension between science and religion intensified. Some scientists began to express their opposition to the dogma of Christianity while simultaneously a culture of scientific romanticism thrived. The fact that the general public often didn’t understand the scientific bases for the discoveries contributed to suspicion and paranormal explanations.

Interestingly, Roentgen’s discovery of radiography provided one of the focal areas of convergence of the scientific discipline of physics with this psychic, romantic, paranormal, pseudoscientific movement. Keith Williams, in the article “Ghosts from the Machine: Technologisation of the Uncanny in H. G. Wells” describes the ambivalent feelings of Victorians (the anxieties in addition to the optimism) as scientific discoveries were made. Knowledge of the electromagnetic spectrum enabled the understanding of visible light and color; however, the fact that some of the waves on the spectrum were invisible and could penetrate solid substances (e.g., X-rays) kindled a combination of fascination, fear, and “otherworldly” images. Williams refers to H.G. Wells’s 1898 book The Invisible Man and his other writings as examples of a “strange liaison between spiritualism and science.” In fact, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), founded in 1882, whose membership consisted of scientists and philosophers, was an example of this type of liaison (Wil-liams 2010).

Print of Wilhelm Röntgen’s first “medical” X-ray, of his wife’s hand, taken on December 22, 1895, and presented to Ludwig Zehnder of the Physik Institut, University of Freiburg, on January 1, 1896.
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