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Friday, Aug. 29, 2014
 

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'Insights With Angela Creager'



A new book by Princeton University historian Angela Creager explains how knowledge and technology that grew out of the Manhattan Project paved the way for important breakthroughs in medicine and biology. In this video, Creager describes the great hopes for atomic research in the 1940s and '50s and how those hopes were later tempered by concerns about radiation exposure. Read more.


Video Closed Captions


ANGELA CREAGER: When both
ordinary people and scholars

have thought about the legacy
of the Manhattan Project,

we thought about the way in
which physics and engineering

were put to military use.

We thought about a destructive
legacy, the arms race, the Cold

War.

Part of what I discovered
was that atomic energy

had just as much of a legacy
in some of the fields that we

think of as peaceable as
it did in military uses.

And specifically here, a lot of
the advances in postwar biology

and medicine that have been
really taken for granted

owe a lot to the
materials and the policies

that were part of
the Cold War US.

When the Manhattan
Project resulted

in the invention of
nuclear reactors,

many scientists working
for the Manhattan Project

understood that this would be
a tremendous source, especially

for the production of
radioactive isotopes.

NARRATOR: What
are radioisotopes?

They are merely unstable
forms of elements giving off

unseen particles, or
rays, from the nuclei

during the process of
changing to stable form.

ANGELA CREAGER:
Initially, the hope

was that radioisotopes could
be used to cure cancer.

So there was a great
hope that perhaps cancer

could be treated by finding
a magic bullet for every kind

of cancer, a different
kind of radioisotope that

might localize to
a tissue and kill

a tumor from within the body.

And there are some cancers that
are susceptible to radioisotope

treatment, although, in the
end, it was more a replacement

for radium as an
external radiation

source than a completely
revolutionary, new kind

of treatment.

So those uses were
already known.

In addition, the discovery
of stable isotopes

had already led to trace
reuses of isotopes.

Trace reuses are
when you replace

one atom of a compound with a
particular radiolabeled atom

so that you can
follow that label

through the ordinary chemical
or biological processes

that that compound goes through.

And so radiotracing
was very widely

applicable to
study biochemistry,

physiology, endocrinology,
eventually ecology.

Basically anything where a
chemical compound is in motion,

radiotracing is a way to
look at change over time

and look at chemical
transformations.

There was still this great
hope that radioisotopes

were going to do great
things for humankind.

There was a story about
the medical dividends

of atomic energy that features
a very striking color image.

It shows a man,
who's in his pajamas,

having stood up from
a wheelchair, who

is encircled in this
halo of a mushroom cloud.

And the suggestion
is that he has

been healed of whatever ailment
had him in that wheelchair

by the power of the atom.

I think it captures better
than any other single image

the hopeful side.


Certainly people understood
that at high levels

radiation was very dangerous.

But it was over the course
of the 1950s and 1960s

that the hazards of
low-level radiation

came into clearer view.

And that complicated
the hope that radiation

and radioisotopes could be
beneficial for civilians,

because certainly
their use would expose

some people to low
levels of radioactivity.

So then it became
more of a calculation

of when the risk
was worth taking.

And in most cases
today, people feel

like low-level risks associated
with dental X-rays or tests

in hospitals are worth it to
get the benefits of radiation

and radioisotopes.

But people are more leery
about the risks of radiation

from nuclear power
and other kinds

of environmental contamination.


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