Author: Iwan Rhys Morus
A few years ago, during one of our occasional forays to Hay on Wye and its second hand bookshops, I came across a boys’ adventure novel called The Radium Casket, published in 1926 (by Oxford University Press – I had no idea they published such things, though a few seconds research showed me how wrong I was: https://global.oup.com/education/children). Obviously, no historian of physics was going to leave something like that in a bookshop, so I bought it. It’s a classic imperialist yarn, set in China in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion. The British hero rescues a Chinese fugitive from his attackers and the dying man bequeaths him a mysterious casket filled with a strange silvery metal that turns out to have some peculiar properties.
It was radium, of course.
The book, along with its sequel, Radium Island, published ten years later in 1936, is interesting for our Unsettling Scientific Stories project for a lot of reasons. I’m interested in particular in the uses of radium and what it tells us about the way new science was circulating during the early decades of the last century, and how the possibilities it offered were understood. Radium here is clearly a cipher for mysterious new science. The properties attributed to it – sending people to sleep, deflecting compass needles, destroying metals, providing an inexhaustible power supply – don’t particularly tally with what radium was really known to do by the 1920s. They’re just the sort of things mysterious rays were conventionally expected to deliver in Edwardian fiction. The reference to specks of light is intriguing though. Counting the flashes of light produced when alpha particles from a radioactive source hit a scintillation screen was the usual method of detecting and measuring radioactivity at this time.
What radium does in the story is provide a device that straddles ancient and occult knowledge and a contemporary technology pointing towards the future. The radium casket is ancient and Chinese, its contents were cutting edge contemporary technology. The ancient Chinese who made it presumably understood radium and its properties, their descendants didn’t. That was now a western prerogative, and it’s the hero that uses the casket’s properties to escape from his captors. So radium stands for their lost knowledge that now belongs to us.
In the sequel, Radium Island, the original protagonists set out to find the original source from which the ancient Chinese sages mined the radioactive metal. Unsurprisingly for the 1930s there’s a lot of geopolitics. They’re joined by a German Jewish scientist who has fled from the Nazis. They have encounters with the Japanese navy. They know that the radium mine they’re searching for and find will be a vital economic and military asset. Making sure it doesn’t fall into the wrong (Chinese or Japanese) hands is as important as claiming it for Britain. They win the race to radium island because they have futuristic technology. Hugh the hero has become an inventor thanks to the proceeds of their first adventure, and has designed and built a vertical take off aeroplane in his workshop in Pembrokeshire (yes, there’s a Welsh connection!)
The books’ author, Lawrence R. Bourne, was a prolific churner out of boys’ adventure stories, usually with a nautical flavour like these ones, though there are no others I can find that feature radioactivity in the plotline. He was a missionary, scout master, and journalist based in Newport, Wales, hence presumably the detailed knowledge of back roads in south as west Wales featured in the cross country car chase that takes place near the start of Radium Island. His knowledge of radium was clearly sketchy, though he was obviously aware that it was used as a source of radiation in hospitals – that was what made the quantity that our hero and his friends found in the Radium Casket so lucrative. But the interesting thing is that the real properties of radium clearly didn’t matter here. Radium just stood for something new, mysterious and belonging to the future.
The disinterest in getting the science right is in distinct contrast to the deep concern with accuracy that’s seen in much contemporary SF, as Amy discusses in her blog about scientific accuracy in SF. Is it because these are books aimed at children maybe? Or is the (lack of) concern with detail a feature of the period’s speculative literature, that wanted bits of science to add an exotic edge and not much more? Or again, is it because these are boys’ adventure stories and whilst the science adds to the appeal, the details might not matter? I can think of another example from a few decades later in Captain W. E. Johns’s space stories – a sort of Biggles in space where the thought given to the technology that delivers the adventure is sketchy to say the least. I’ll have more to say about them in another blog.