cover image Naked to the Bone: Medical Imaging in the Twentieth Century

Naked to the Bone: Medical Imaging in the Twentieth Century

Bettyann Kevles. Rutgers University Press, $60 (398pp) ISBN 978-0-8135-2358-3

Though it would be hard to imagine a topic with less apparent general appeal, this addition to the Sloan Technology Series is in fact a very good read. Writing 101 years after the discovery of X rays by Wilhelm Roentgen, the author presents the history of the technology, showing how it was refined over the following 50 years and challenged after WWII by newer technologies based on television and the computer. Because of X rays, people began to see the world differently, and we now are at the point where we ""no longer accept surfaces as barriers, but see them instead as smoky scrims through which we now have access."" At the same time, X rays became associated with tissue damage and ultimately with cancer, making them the first technology with a ""built-in time bomb."" This has caused us to think differently about science than we did before, the author claims, even though fear of the unintended consequences of knowledge goes back in our culture at least as far as Icarus and is more recently manifested in the cautionary tales of Drs. Faust and Frankenstein. The second wave of imaging technology, involving CT, MRI and PET scans, has had less of a traumatic effect on culture, perhaps because each advance was a more gradual accretion based on previous efforts. While this is interesting science, it is the cultural effects spelled out in the final chapter on ""The Transparent Body in Late Twentieth-Century Culture"" that constitute the heart of this engrossing and informative book. Illustrated. (Jan.)