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Zapped: From Infrared to X-rays, the Curious History of Invisible Light

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Read an excerpt from Bob Berman’s new journey into the mysteries of waves we can't see

By Charlotte Salley

July 28, 2017


 

Long summer days and pulsing sunburns remind us of the power of sunlight, something we always push to the back of our minds during gloomy winter days. In his new book, Zapped, Bob Berman sets out to illuminate something else we usually aren’t looking for … precisely because it’s light we can’t see. This is the captivating story of gamma rays, X-rays, radio waves, microwaves, and all the other waves and rays invisible to the human eye but still zooming and beaming around us and, at times, through us. But fear not the long-winded scientific discourse: Berman zings through historical and scientific adventures like the discovery of radioactive foods, the birth of the universe, and how radio waves saved lives when the Titanic sunk. Try this excerpt on space travel to whet your appetite for the cosmic rays of the galaxy.

When the thirty Apollo astronauts—in groups of three, with three “repeats”—sped outward from Earth between 1968 and 1972, they experienced something no human had ever been subjected to, before or since. They ventured beyond our planet’s magnetosphere—its protective magnetic field.

The results were unexpected and bizarre. Each man saw something that resembled a streaking meteor cross his field of vision around once a minute. At first the astronauts kept this disquieting development to themselves. Nearly all of them were navy pilots, and long experience made it an unwritten rule that no pilot ever reveals to any physician that anything is medically wrong with him. Especially something that might be construed as mental in origin.

But a few were close enough to their fellow astronauts to confide in them about what was happening. In this manner they came to realize that the streaking-meteor phenomenon was befalling them all. Then it was safe to report it to mission control.

NASA physicians had an immediate theory that was later verified. Powerful cosmic rays were zooming through the astronauts’ eyeballs. Traveling beyond both Earth’s atmosphere and its magnetosphere meant that those high-speed intruders from deep space had nothing to block them. Each “ray” was ripping a path through the cerebral cortex, exciting and no doubt damaging neurons and triggering the streaks.

Excerpted from ZAPPED: From Infrared to X-rays, the Curious History of Invisible Light © 2017 Bob Berman. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.


Charlotte Salley is the assistant editor of the Scholar.


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