Greetings, all. Today I’m attempting a different, largely pictographic approach to demystifying the concept of “radiation” for the layperson.
Despite the hype, radiation is a natural part of our planet’s, solar system’s, and galaxy’s environment, and one that our biology is equipped to mitigate at ordinary intensities. It’s all actually surprisingly straightforward.
So, without further ado, here goes – a post in two parts…
PART I – Radiation and Radioactivity Explained in 60 Seconds:
This is a generic diagram of the atom, which in various combinations of the same bits and parts is the basic unique building block of all matter in the universe:
This somewhat simplified view of an atom is what makes up the classic “atomic” symbol that most of us were exposed to at the very least in high school.
However, what is almost never explained in school is that each atomic element comes in different versions – slimmer ones and fatter ones. When an atom’s core gets too large, either naturally or artificially, it starts to radiate bits of itself away in order to “slim down.” This is called being radio-active.
So, there’s nothing to “radiation” that we all haven’t been introduced to in school. Radiation is the name given to familiar bits of atoms (electrons, protons, neutrons) or beams of light when they’re being flung away by an element trying desperately to squeeze into last year’s jeans… metaphorically-speaking, of course.
Here is a diagram illustrating this process. (Relax! – this is the most complicated-looking diagram in this post):
So, when a radioactive element has radiated enough of itself away and is no longer too large, it is no longer radioactive. (We say it has “decayed.”)
That’s as complicated as the essential principles of radiation and radioactivity get. It’s just basic chemistry that isn’t covered in high school, (though in my opinion it should be!).
PART II – Take-Home Radiation Infographics
So, in an effort to help arm you against the rampant misinformation out there, here is a collection of simple diagrams explaining what everyone out there seems to get wrong. (Feel free to promote and/or distribute with attribution!)
First, what’s the deal with “atomic” energy/radiation versus “nuclear” energy/radiation? Do they mean the same thing? Do they not? Here’s the skinny:
That’s all. “Nuclear” means you’ve zeroed in on an atom’s core, whereas “atomic” means you’re talking about something dealing with whole atoms. No big mystery there.
Next, here is a simple diagram explaining the three terms used to describe radiation that are commonly misused in the media, presented clearly (click to enlarge):
(Armed with this, you should be able to see why saying something like, “The radiation is releasing contamination!” doesn’t make a lick of sense.)
Now, here is a diagram explaining the natural sources of radiation we’re exposed to everyday on planet Earth:
And here are the basic principles of radiation safety, all on one, clean diagram (click to enlarge):
Despite the time and effort spent socially (politically?) promoting an obscured view of this science (or so it seems), there is nothing more mysterious about radiation than what you see here.
Please feel free to contact me with any questions, and remember: We have nothing to fear but fear itself!