Books, Science

The Radioactive Gift

The Shaggy Man and Polychrome, from “The Road to Oz.”

“Not all those who wander are lost,” wrote J.R.R. Tolkien. But in “The Road to Oz,” book No. 5 of the “Oz” series by L. Frank Baum, Dorothy is wandering because she is lost.

A hobo, with a “love magnet,” comes to her uncle’s farmhouse in Kansas, asking her for directions to Butterfield. Not that he wants to go there, but so he doesn’t go there by mistake. And that’s reasonable if you go by the wonderfully weird logic of Oz.

She accompanies him to a roundabout. Within the blink of an eye, it splits into as many routes “as the spokes of a wheel,” forking out in every direction from the place where they stood. They don’t know which road to take, but the one they do, leads them to a familiar territory: Oz, of course.

Along the way, she meets other lost souls: Button-Bright, the boy who doesn’t remember how he got lost, and Polychrome, the rainbow’s daughter. The party walks through a village of gentle foxes; a town of clever donkeys; a village of bi-faced cannibals; and a man who makes music with his breath.

They arrive in Emerald City, Oz’s dazzling green capital, just in time for princess Ozma’s birthday bash. When the celebrations are over, the guests return home in an odd mode of transport: gigantic soap bubbles, blown by the wizard.

As in “The Marvelous Land of Oz,” in this, too, Baum inserts a scientific invention that was making a splash in his day: radium, a silvery white metal when freshly cut.

King Evardo of Ev, the land north of Oz, presents Ozma with a diamond diadem, set in radium. But if anyone had held a dosimeter close to it, it’d pick up a stream of radioactivity, spewing invisibly from it.

But we can’t fault Baum for thinking of this deadly gift. When the book was published—in 1909—the popularity of radium was at its peak.

A radium clock, glowing emerald-green in the dark.

People were fascinated with its enchanting luminescence, but no one understood its ill-effects. It was used in clock faces and airplane dials because it glowed emerald-green in the dark, when mixed with paint.

Could the radiance of radium have been Baum’s inspiration for creating Emerald City?

h/t: E.P.A.


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