Nuclear and Atomic Radiation Concepts Pictographically Demystified

10 10 2013

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:

The Atom

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.

Radioactive Atoms

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 it!

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):


The End! 

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!

Semper Exploro!


The Antimatter Plot Thickens…

30 04 2013

I realize it’s been egregiously silent here at the Astrowright blog for some time.  Apparently, I am not immune to the same disappointing (as a reader) dry spells experienced in/by so many other blogs I’ve followed during the years. 

(With grad school, teaching at CSN, my day-job working for DOE, a side-business or two in flux, moonlighting the occasional and surreal TV project, and with a 1&1/2-year-old at home – let’s just say I’ve come to terms with the reality that I’m not a juggling Jedi yet.)

Excuses aside, however, I wanted to take a moment to relay a devastatingly exciting potential discovery, which itself was prompted by a pleasant surprise…

CERN's ALPHA experiment.  (Credit: CERN)

CERN’s ALPHA experiment – our Anti-Virgil into Dante’s Antimatter Inferno? (Credit: CERN)

Antimatter in Focus

AntimatterSymbolOnlyAs reported on and, which prominently featured the antimatter symbol I created a couple of years back (i.e., the pleasant surprise – thanks, Keith!), we may be one giant leap closer to figuring out antimatter – and with it, peer a little farther into the mysterious underpinnings of the Fundamental Forces of Nature.

In an article titled, “Does Antimatter Fall Up or Down?” Keith Cowing reports that researchers at CERN’s Alpha Experiment recently published in Nature Communications their tantalizing antimatter research progress.  

Specifically, these CERN specialists have identified a process for finally determining whether or not gravity acts upon antimatter the same way it does upon “ordinary” matter, even if they haven’t answered the question quite yet.  (See Keith’s article for more details on their experiment, what it means, and where it’s going.)

Down the Anti-Rabbit Hole

So, why do we or should we care about figuring out what antimatter really is and how the universe treats it?  Well, quite simply, it has the possibility of providing new solutions to many current problems in physics. 

Dark EnergyDark Matter, and questions about early Cosmic Inflation all essentially deal with versions of the same issue: There are apparent problems with the amount of force we see in the universe versus how much we should expect. 

Perhaps a shift in our understanding of fundamental forces, like gravity, will shed new light.

This is to say nothing of the mystery concerning why the universe appears to be all matter and generally no antimatter.  According to physics as we understand it, there’s no reason for the bias.  (Why not areas of high concentrations of antimatter and others of normal matter?)

Why did matter win?

And to make matters yet more interesting, the late, great Dr. Richard Feynman (and others) have described antimatter as being inditinguishable from (or perhaps actually being!) ordinary matter moving backwards through time.  While few physicists believe this is actually the case, it certainly bends neurons considering that it remains a physical possibility*.

(*I should note that this idea of antiparticles moving “backwards” in time, in order to be true, requires a reconstruction of what we mean by “time.”  This is because antiparticles don’t blip out of existence as they move to the “past” with respect to us as we, presumably, continue to move into the “future.”  Instead, we remain with the antiparticles in the same measurable “now” in the universe…)

Antimatter – A Guiding Star

Keep an eye on this one, folks.  It could very well be that the study of antimatter provides us the wedge we need to evolve beyond peering through the keyhole at the universe and instead throw open the door.

Optimistic?  Admittedly. 

However, we’re due for our big 21st Century paradigm shift in the sciences.  What with the recent 100 Year Starship Symposium hinting at what the future has to offer us (along with humanity’s expanding view of our galactic neighborhood and our desire to get out there and engage it), it’s high time we get on inventing that superluminal propulsion system to Alpha Centauri, already.

I’m not getting any younger.

Forecasting the End: The Science of Rogue Planets

21 03 2013

ftefbook2I’m pleased to report that I had the opportunity to consult on (and occasionally appear in) an astronomy/geoscience/climate science crossover project for the Weather Channel this past year, entitled, Forecasting the End.

The show, which premiers this evening, uses extremely-low-probability astronomical or geophysical disasters as a hook to explore and present astronomy, geology, meteorology, and physics concepts in a novel (and admittedly fantastic) way.

Of the six-episode series, the first deals with the concept of so-called “rogue” planets, a timely subject of recent research.

What is a Rogue Planet?

Many astrophysicists, astronomers, and exoplanetologists have set their research sights on puzzling out exactly how it is that new star systems go about forming planets, (in this case “exoplanets,” or planets outside our solar system).  Interestingly, the fruits of their labor have in recent years led to the realization that the process is a frequently violent one.  -So violent, in fact, that during the gravity tango performed between a fledgling solar system’s new planets, one of these “dancers” is thrown right off of the dance floor.

In other words, it seems that planets are often ejected from their home star system in the chaos surrounding a newly-formed star.  This actually serves to help the “dance” between the rest of the worlds calm into a more stable, final set of orbits, perhaps turning it into more of a “march.”

Any one of these escaped exoplanets, then, becomes a “rogue” planet – left to wander the cosmos along its lonely escape trajectory for billions of years.

-And to confirm that this knowledge is more than just theoretical, astronomers revealed last November that they captured what looks for all the world to be a rogue planet in the flesh a mere 75 light-years away:

Infrared image of rogue planet CFBDSIR2149. (Credit: CFHT/P. Delorme)

Infrared image of rogue planet CFBDSIR2149. (Credit: CFHT/P. Delorme)

Rogue Planet as Cosmic Bard

Astronomy-savvy readers may recall a splash last year when researchers reported calculating that there may be billions of these dark, lonely worlds wandering the galaxy.  However, as the “giggle-check” champion astronomer Phil Plait of “Bad Astronomy” fame was quick to point out, compared to the amount of free space in the galaxy, the odds of a collision with these seemingly innumerable rogue planets – any collision – are mind-bendingly slim.

Hence, while the Forecasting’s exercise deals with a disaster that is legitimately statistically possible, it is a threat far less likely than, say, being hit by a meteorite.  Or winning the lottery three times in a row.

Instead, the rogue planet has a different, more sublime function.  It can help us tell a story, and in the telling, learn a little bit more about the Earth.

By exploring the “What if?” scenario provided by the idea of a rogue planet breezing through our solar system, we have the opportunity to illuminate a seemingly-unrelated and often misunderstood phenomena at work much closer to home (and – for the “aha” moment – much more relevant to traditional weather):  Seasons.

Wherefore Art Thou Seasons?

The cosmic roots of our annual swing between months spent shoveling snow and sunning on sandy beaches may not be at all intuitive.  However, this reality becomes much easier to grasp in terms of a cosmic disaster.

Allow me to explain.

Many (intuitively) misunderstand why it is that the seasons exist at all, believing logically that summer is when the Earth is closest to the Sun, and winter is when we’re farthest away.  This is actually not the case.

Why not?  Simply, because the Earth’s orbit is almost perfectly circular, there really isn’t that much difference between the heat received by the Earth at closest and farthest approach to and from the Sun.

Instead, the seasons are caused by the fact that the Earth is tilted as it goes around the Sun.  This means that the Earth doesn’t stand “upright” as it goes round, but rather, it leans:

Illustration that weather seasons are related to the Earth's axis tilt; Summer on the hemisphere pointed toward the sun (northern or southern), and winter for the hemisphere pointed away. (Credit: Ben McGee)

Illustration that weather seasons are related to the Earth’s axis tilt; Summer on the hemisphere (northern or southern) pointed toward the sun, and winter for the hemisphere pointed away. (Credit: Ben McGee)

Consequently, summer is when your side of the Earth (northern or southern hemisphere) is pointed toward the Sun, and winter is when your side of the planet is pointed away.

This is also why, at the equator, the temperature is so consistent throughout the year – at the geographic middle of the planet, straddling the line between hemispheres, you’re neither pointed toward or away during any time of year and experience sunny temperatures year-round.  In contrast, if the “near-and-far” season misconception were true, one would expect snowy winters in Barbados, which simply never occurs…

Playing with Weather via Orbital Dynamics

All of this having been said, the reality explained above – the current cause of our seasons – goes completely out the window in the scenario explored in Forecasting’s rogue planet episode.  There, the orbits of Jupiter and the inner planets are enlongated by a rogue planet flyby (ignoring for the sake of brevity orbital resonances that might make such a shift even more catastrophic than advertised), which has a surprising result:

Such an event turns the previously-mentioned misconception (that seasons are caused by distance with respect to the Sun) into fact for life on Earth!

In such a scenario, the shape of Earth’s orbit becomes more oval (ellipse) than circle, and it travels much closer to and farther away from the Sun during its yearly course (aphelion and perihelion) than it does now.  As a result, seasonal changes due to the Earth’s axial tilt are totally overwhelmed by the global swing in temperatures based just on proximity to the Sun.

NOTE: These effects were actually scientifically modeled on Earth by Penn State astronomer Darren Williams and paleoclimatologist David Pollard in an effort to explore the habitability of worlds with more elliptical orbits around other stars and were published in the International Journal of Astrobiology in 2002.  This paper, which formed the conceptual basis for the effects depicted in this episode, can be found here.

So now, on a post-rogue-planet-soon-to-be-apocalyptic Earth, everyone on the planet experiences summer and winter globally, which leads to a rapid sort of climate change completely disruptive to our way of life:

With an elliptical orbit, (where during half the year the Earth is much closer to the Sun than the other), Earth's seasons are global and driven by proximity to the Sun. (Credit: Ben McGee)

With an elliptical orbit, (where during half the year the Earth is much closer to the Sun than the other), Earth’s seasons are global and driven by proximity to the Sun. (Credit: Ben McGee)

Earthly Take-Home in an Exoplanetary Context

Aside from the tantalizing (for space scientists) or terrifying (for everyone else) infinitesimally-remote specter of some sort of  interaction with a rogue planet, this episode provides a a roundabout and extreme way to drive home a simple truth:  Astronomy relates directly to weather.

The knowledge that the study of the universe beyond can help us understand life at home is a powerful one, and the take-home truth (to me) of the rogue planet episode is that orbit shapes and axis tilts work to define the temperature (weather) for any world orbiting a star.

-And today, because our orbit is not elliptical, it is the tilt of our axis that dominates our climate and causes our seasons.

Stay tuned for more, and I’ll try and have one of these out for each episode!

Surviving Radiation in Space

13 02 2013

Apollo 10 image of Earth taken from 100,000 miles.  [Credit: NASA]

Apollo 10 image of Earth taken from 100,000 miles away.
[Credit: NASA]

For those who are interested in the reality of radiation exposure on Earth, in space, on the Moon, and what this exposure means for our prospects of manned exploration of the Solar System, read on!

The Myths and Truths of Death by Space Radiation

There are persistent groves of misinformation taking root about the lethality of radiation doses for astronauts, particularly for those who are bound for the Moon and/or Near-Earth-Objects, (such as asteroids for research or mining).

Unfortunately, these claims have been given the capacity for widespread proliferation in the fertile cyber-soil of the Internet, and worse, they usually sprout symbiotically with claims that the Moon landings were hoaxed, e.g.:

“We could never have landed on the Moon because the astronauts could never have survived the radiation from cosmic sources/the Van Allen Belts/solar wind.  Therefore, at a sound stage in the Nevada desert…”

Well, since most of these authors capitalize on the preexisting, prevalent fear of radiation to sugar-coat their misinformation pill, most people are unprepared to distinguish technically-compelling pseudoscientific fluff from interpretations of actual data.   So, the below is an effort to arm you, fellow readers, with a guide to help navigate these murky radiation/Moon hoax waters.

NOTE: NASA has produced a factsheet on space radiation as well, which covers the basics of radiation and its effects and measurement.

By reviewing some of this information, you’ll ideally emerge with an enhanced ability to see for yourselves if these radiation-lethality claims hold water.

(SPOILER ALERT: They don’t.)

So, to begin, let’s review what we know about radiation exposure right here on planet Earth.

Current Regulation Levels and Common Radiation Doses

After nearly a half-century of dedicated research, it has been found that there is no detectable increase in the incidence of cancer (the primary threat of penetrating gamma-ray radiation exposure) for people who receive an annual radiation dose of 5,000 millirem (5 rem) or less.

Consequently, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) federal regulations currently limit nuclear workers to an annual dose of that amount.  Further, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) federal regulations, to be on the safe side, currently limit radiological workers’ annual doses to one tenth of the NRC’s limit (500 millirem) unless there is some sort of extreme circumstance or emergency.

But what do these numbers mean?  To help visualize this data, please see the below graph, which places these numbers in simple context with radiation doses we receive naturally from things we all can more easily comprehend, like a chest x-ray:

Current radiation exposure limits and common doses.  [Chart credit: Ben W. McGee]

Current radiation exposure limits and common doses. [Chart credit: Ben W. McGee]

As you can see, there is a certain amount of radiation exposure that we all receive just from standing on planet Earth (see the far right-hand side of the graph).  This natural radiation is unavoidable – cosmic rays can penetrate just about any shield that is not located deep within the Earth, which is itself radioactive and contributing gamma rays from below.  In fact, you will note that the DOE administrative limit mentioned above is actually less than the amount of radiation we all already receive from Earth, plants*, rocks, air, and even ourselves* in a given year.  (*Roughly 1-2% of all potassium on earth is the radioactive isotope, K-40.)

The take-home here is that none of the numbers in the above graph indicate any sort of imminent danger.  In fact, all doses depicted above are evidenced to be “safe” levels, in that they are either natural or below any exposure that the data indicates increases the incidence of cancer in a population (see: ICRP, NCRP).

NOTE:  There are actually two separate dangers that get confused during conversations about the health effects of radiation.  The first kind of danger is for lower-level exposures, which is the danger of increasing your risk of developing cancer later in life.  -This is exactly like the common knowledge that more time spent sunning or tanning during youth equates to an increased risk of skin cancer later on in life.  (It won’t harm you now, but it could harm you later.  It’s a roll of the dice based on your own health, habits, luck, and genetics.) 

The second kind of danger is immediate – the damage and destruction of cells due to a brief, intense exposure to radiation.  Following the sun-tanning analogy, this is akin to a sunburn but spread throughout your body – damage directly caused by the radiation due to its intensity.  While this may also increase your risk of cancer, the threat here is direct injury and your body’s ability to cope.

How do these natural and regulated levels of radiation exposure compare to the radiation dose levels we really know to be definitely unsafe?  For that, see the following expanded graph, which has been color-coded to relate it to the previous one:

Dangerous radiation levels in context.  [Chart credit: Ben W. McGee]

Dangerous radiation levels in context. [Chart credit: Ben W. McGee]

So, as you can see, this graph allows you to immediately identify relationships between ordinary and dangerous radiation exposures to help you understand the concept of radiation exposure and recognize how intense radiation has to be in order to be considered truly dangerous.

  • For instance, you have to be exposed to an intensity of radiation ten million times that of Earth’s normal background levels before worrying about developing radiation sickness.  That’s ten thousand times more powerful than a chest x-ray.
  • You would also need to receive 1,000 chest x-ray scans before worrying about definitely having increased your risk of developing cancer later in life by a single percentage point.

Now, with a little context, we can start to evaluate how bad the space radiation environment really is.

Explorer-1, that discovered the Van Allen Radiation Belts in 1958.  [Credit: NASA/MSFC]

Explorer-1, launched in 1958. [Credit: NASA/MSFC]

Debunking Lethal Radiation from the Van Allen Belts

The United States’ first spacecraft, Explorer-1, detected the presence of so-called “belts” of radiation around the Earth.  These were named after the scientist who designed the instrument that discovered them, Dr. James Van Allen of the University of Iowa.  However, we have learned much since then, including measurements from the radiation instrument RADOM aboard the much more recent Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft (launched in 2008).

Results from RADOM showed that the inner Van Allen belt, which extends from roughly 1,000 miles above the Earth to a little more than 6,000 miles up, appears to be composed of highly energetic particles, such as solar protons, (meaning they pack a higher radiation “kick”).  The outer belt, on the other hand, extends from a little more than 9,000 miles up to a full 33,000 miles up, and it appears to be a little gentler – it is composed primarily of electrons (beta particles).

So, just how bad was the radiation measured there?  Well, it wasn’t something to dismiss (and was academically quite interesting), but it also wasn’t something that would strike fear into the hearts of mission planners:

Peak radiation exposure while traveling through the inner, more powerful belt reached 13,000 millirem per hour, (or 13 rem per hour).  So, if an astronaut were to park in worst part of the inner Van Allen belt for an hour with no shielding, he or she would receive a radiation dose nearly three times the annual “safe” dose for DOE workers and may have bumped up their lifetime risk of a fatal cancer by a percentage point.

Fortunately, however, the time the Apollo astronauts spent traveling through the highest radiation zone of the inner Van Allen belt (at a screaming 11,000+ miles per hr) was fractional – their doses averaged 120 millirem per day.

Go ahead and compare this to the above graphs.

So, it is clear that the Apollo astronauts’ radiation doses in this case were much less than a common CT scan and far less than what a modern astronaut on the International Space Station receives during a 6-month tour (~7,000 millirem).

Hence, simply passing through the Van Allen Belts is anything but lethal.

Astronaut exposed to the raw space radiation environment on Apollo 8.  [Credit: NASA]

Astronaut exposed to the raw space radiation environment on Apollo 8. [Credit: NASA]

Debunking Lethal Radiation Doses from the Earth to the Moon

Like our own sun, all of the other stars in the night sky are nuclear reactors.  Consequently, a constant “rain” of high-energy particles and gamma rays comes at us from the rest of the galaxy, which we call Galactic Cosmic Radiation, or GCR.

Many claim that in “deep space,” e.g., the space between the Earth and the Moon or between Earth and Mars, GCR would prove lethal for a human being.  Yet, the data indicates otherwise.  (Actually, GCR is the primary source of radiation an astronaut normally experiences in all cases, whether in Earth orbit or beyond.)

Let’s have a look.

The data we have about radiation doses during travel from the Earth to the Moon, like with the Van Allen Belts, are not limited to the old Apollo mission data.  For example, the same Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft mentioned above also traveled from the Earth to the Moon and showed a dose during the five day trip (a.k.a. during “translunar injection“) of 1.2 millirem per hour.

Granted, while this is a level nearly a hundred times the average gamma-ray background radiation intensity on Earth, it is still low enough to not present an immediate concern.  Why?  See the above graphs for a comparison – An astronaut would have to spent more than 170 days in this radiation field before even reaching the NRC’s limit for nuclear workers, which equates to no statistical increase in developing cancer.

This sort of radiation exposure becomes an issue when planning long-term missions to the Moon or Mars, which involve several months to years of exposure time, but it certainly bore no immediate threat to Apollo astronauts traveling to-and-from the Moon in a matter of days.

View of the Taurus-Littrow Apollo 17 landing site, 7-19 Dec. 1972.  (Credit: NASA)

View of the Taurus-Littrow Apollo 17 landing site. [Credit: NASA]

Debunking Lethal Radiation on the Moon

Like with the trip from the Earth to the moon, radiation doses on the lunar surface did not even approach immediate danger levels, and while they fluctuated strongly with changes in the Sun’s output, the Moon itself was observed to act as a shield from galactic cosmic radiation.

Consequently, doses received by astronauts on the lunar surface were actually less than that received in lunar orbit, and again, averaged 120 millirem per day.

This value is completely consistent with measurements from the RADOM instrument in 2008 that showed radiation dose rates in lunar orbit of approximately 1-2 millirem per hour.

And again, these are far from doses that would pose an imminent threat to an astronaut’s ability to function.  An astronaut would, quite simply, need to stand in a radiation field of an intensity one hundred thousand times greater for a full hour before suffering the effects of radiation sickness.

The final space radiation threat data in context, plotted in green, can be seen in the following chart:

Space radiation doses in context.  [Chart credit: Ben W. McGee]

Space radiation doses in context. [Chart credit: Ben W. McGee]

Looking Ahead to Planetary Exploration

What does this all mean for the future of manned space exploration?  While all of this does show that claims of radiation lethality in space are plainly false, it also indicates that radiation mitigation will have to be a central planning issue in order for future astronauts to remain within the current bounds of acceptable risk.

Prevailing wisdom accepts that spaceflight and planetary exploration is inherently dangerous and limits what is considered to be acceptable risk to a 3% increase in fatal consequences as a result of radiation exposure – regulations for radiation exposure that are more lenient for astronauts than for other radiation workers.  (Surprisingly, however, this level of risk acceptance is actually more conservative than what is currently accepted for workers in other, much more prosaic terrestrial jobs in many industrial and natural resource fields… but that’s another story.)

There is some research to suggest that chronic, lower-intensity radiation exposure to some of the soft tissues of the eye may lead to secondary negative health effects, such as cataracts, but we’ve only just begun to learn what effects the many alien factors of the space environment have on human physiology, including gravity-induced modifications of bone, muscle, and organ function.  -And again, these effects are not imminently prohibitive and are certainly not immediately lethal.

The Take-Home

Radiation exposure is one of space’s primary threats – but it is not the primary threat.

A lack of atmospheric pressure, the presence of boiling and/or freezing temperature extremes, an intrinsic lack of breathable air and water, and the necessity of shielding against (or avoidance of) micrometeoroids are all arguably more pressing threats.

Radiation at any exposure rate measured in cislunar space certainly wouldn’t prevent an astronaut from visiting the moon, and only if trapped in the most unlikely and unfortunate of orbits would an astronaut ever need be concerned about the possibility of developing a radiation-induced depression of the immune system and – at the extreme – acute radiation sickness.

Take alarmists with a grain of salt and look to the data for the truth.  In fact, it can be seriously argued that conquering our fear of the atom may actually be the means by which the rest of the solar system is opened to humanity.

In my view, that’s where the real conversation is.


For more information on space radiation doses to astronauts, link (PDF) to the following landmark document, “Space Radiation Organ Doses for Astronauts on Past and Future Missions” by F.A. Cucinotta.

Radiation, Japan, and Irresponsible Reporting: Part IV

29 05 2012

(Credit: Jeremy Gwin)

This post has been lying in wait for quite some time.  I thought it best that I let it simmer and distill for a while… The truth is that I was simply getting too frustrated with the Fukushima coverage to compose a sensible post.  Now, with a little extra time and perspective, please allow me to present Part IV (relative to previous Parts I, II, and III) of my attempt to throw a cup of knowledge onto the raging inferno of misinformation out there relating to “radiation” and the media/cultural fallout (ahem) from the reactor failures in Japan. 

Just how bad is it?  Read on.

Media Blunders

A year ago, just when I thought the tide was turning on the sensationalistic coverage of nuclear reactor incidents in Japan and elsewhere, the media pulled another wave of cheap stunts.  -I had been just about ready to bury the hatchet, and I suddenly realized that it needed sharpening.  Much sharpening.

With (it seems) an ebb-and-flow that correlates to how sensational (or boring) other news is at the time, adding to my deep-seated suspicion that “radiation”-stories are linked to low ratings, the Fukushima coverage swung ’round from simple paranoia and approached raving madness.

Let’s start with this article:

(Credit: The Coleman Company)

When we get into the guts of the piece, the info finally comes out that the amount of radiologically-impacted water in question included only 15 tons and that it was low level radioactivity that was discovered.  That’s important info!  Nay, the most important info.    “Low level” radioactivity includes Coleman lantern mantles, tritium watch luminescence, and americium in smoke detectors – things you already own, wear, or have in your house. 

(Indeed, as I have mentioned in the past, you yourself emit low levels of gamma radiation – see: Potassium-40).

Then, let’s move on to this Fox News article about radioactive isotopes found in breast milk in Japan:

First, the good.  The title of the report states that “radioactive substances” have been found in the breast milk of several Japanese women.  That’s good.  At least we’re moving beyond misnomers like, “Radiation found in breast milk.”

However, then there’s the bad.  And it’s really bad.  The amount of radiation discovered is given no real context.  (The author perhaps didn’t understand it in the first case.)  In fact, while the activity of radioactive material discovered is explained to be nearly a hundred times beneath any safety limit, the critical information is that these limits themselves are far below the range where any negative health effects are to be expected.  Further, if a similar survey were performed in the United States, (with no relation to Fukushima,) radioactive substances would be identified in a proportion of the population.  Seriously.  -And contrary to what stark opponents would have you believe, there are such things as incidental doses of radioactive material.  Our bodies are built to withstand it.  (Radioactive material is naturally-occuring, after all.)

Down the Misinformation Rabbit Hole

Then, we go from bad to worse.  Surprisingly, the top recent offender here was on CNN.  In what I can describe as nothing more than a blatant scare segment, I found myself completely floored when Dr. Michau Kaku, a theoretical physicist whose popular books I greatly admire, was guilty of not only fanning the irrational fear of “radiation,” but he himself uttered the greatest fear-mongering statement I have ever heard.

‘We “came close” to losing northern Japan!’

…What?!  Lost it?  You mean, Dr. Kaku, that the county turned left instead of right, and a clerk at the front of the store had to call on the intercom to get Northern Japan to reunite with the rest of the country?

Liquid Disposal Inc. chemical superfund site. (Credit: EPA)

C’mon!  Unbelievable, and patently untrue.  The Fukushima cleanup will be a difficult but not insurmountable decontamination and decomissioning project.  -This is no different than a cleanup of a historically-toxic steel mill or other major industrial installation that has the potential to release contaminants into the environment.  (See: Superfund Projects.)

Scary Because it Sounds Hip

Then, there’s reporting from the likes of the following articles, (and I otherwise completely love Gizmodo,) spewing misused terminology and editorials-as-fact like Linda Blair does green soup in the Exorcist.

No one has the right to a radiation-free existence, a statement that is assailed in the first story.  A giant gravity-driven nuclear fusion reactor lights our sky every day.  Hundreds of thousands of similar fusion reactors bombard our planet with cumulative radiation at all times from space.  Radioactive material resides in a great proportion of the rocks around us and bombards us from all sides.  And even plantlife, rich in potassium, hits us with radiation whenever we near it.  Our DNA repair mechanisms arose in such an environment, and it typically causes us no concern at all.

Godzilla, a surviving prehistoric oceanic dinosaur mutated and angered by atomic blasts. (Credit: Ishirô Honda)

And regarding the second story, relating a fission reactor to an atomic bomb borders on criminally sensational.  Terms like “terriby dangerous” and “particularly lethal” are tossed about to great effect with no apparent understanding of their context.  And while relating Fukushima to Hiroshima in “bequerels” – a unit of radioactivity – they speak about the release of cesium as though it is in terms of mass.  It is not!  The activity of the Cs-137 released to the environment in bequerels is very different than the amount of Cs-137 released to the environment in grams – and activity decays with time.  So to say Fukushima is the equivalent of 168 “nukes,” (another misnomer,) mixing up descriptions with unit types, and tossing around editorial qualifiers, it is completely clear that the author has no idea what he is really talking about.  -Only that he fears it and apparently wants a catchy lead line.

  • To the point: The human body possess ~4.4 MegaBequerels of activity from Potassium-40.  The radiation released from the population of the United States just standing there already amounts to more than a TeraBequerel.  The rocky mountains contains millions of TeraBequerels of radioactive material, if you want to quantify it that way, (which is odd.) 

Literally, though while not encouraged, the Fukushima release is a drop in the bucket.  A statistical bump.  It’ll be scientifically traceable for years to come, but it won’t cause Godzilla to emerge from the seas to destroy Tokyo.  And it certainly isn’t the equivalent of “168 Nukes.”  Or at least, not in the way the author seems to be intending it.

Piracy-induced Global Cooling, and Other Correlation Fallacies

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this completely insane and somewhat retracted story claiming that a bump in infant mortality had been attributed to the slight rise in detectable radioactive material breezing over the United States after the Fukushima incident:

Modern radiation detection instrumentation is extraordinarily sensitive.  We regularly detect single photons interacting with a detector crystal, log it, and perform statistics conducted over several hours or days.  This allows scientists to make statements like, “A 30% increase over background,” which is essentially measuring 30 times zero. 

So, the levels of radiation detected over the U.S. in this case were far, far beneath what a human body would even notice on planet Earth.  (Let me put it this way – the radiation intensity of a granite countertop would wash out the signal.)  The idea that this “gee-whiz”-grade radiation could have caused anything to infants – in such a short span of time (!) – was patently ridiculous, and physically impossible.  (There is no mechanism for such a miniscule amount of radiation to have casued any damage that led to infant death in such a short amount of time.)

(Credit: Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster)

I am reminded of the now-classic Flying Spaghetti Monster example of a correlation fallacy which states:

  • Since global temperatures have gone up as seaborne piracy has been eliminated and the world’s oceans made more secure, a lack of pirates in the ocean demonstrably causes global warming!  Therefore, to combat global warming, we must put more pirates out on the seas!

This is an over-the-top example of how correlation does not indicate cause-and-effect.  Just so, the authors of the aforementioed study sought to politically paint radiation as a “bad guy” and simply found a correlation, making no effort to tease out cause-and-effect.  As was later made clear, there isn’t any in this case. 

Yet another example of rampant cultural anti-radiation/radiation science bias.

Wading through the Spin

Honestly, the situation at the Fukushima reactors is no picnic, without a doubt.  However, needless sensationalism in the media continued, especially when the category of the accident was upgraded to level 7, “the same as the Chernobyl disaster!”    

… *sigh* … Let me try to untangle this one. 

The important thing here is that a “level 7” event has no ceiling.  That’s it.  Once something crosses the threshold, whether just met or far exceeded, the event would be classified the same.  The Fukushima event is much closer to the former, whereras Chernobyl is more the latter.

In reality, despite the classification, the Fukushima incident is still more like Three Mile Island than Chernobyl for very specific reasons.  (The Three Mile Island nuclear accident is still synonymous with nuclear terror, yet how many people were killed?  Zero.  In the end, radioactive iodine was detected in local milk at a dose much less than one would receive from ingesting a single banana.  This is how badly the scenario has been spun.) 

Risk.  It’s all about risk.  Three Mile Island arguably did not perceptibly increase the risk of negative health effects to people in the region at all.  Now, look at the risk involved with cars.  The automobile involves combustion explosions, toxic chemicals, sparking fires, asphyxiating fumes, deaths from vehicle malfunctions or accidents, etc.  By simple math (number of injuries, illnesses or deaths per year,) cars are extremely dangerous – far, far more dangerous than nuclear reactors – and if you subscribe to anthropogenic (man-caused) climate change, running these CO2-spewing devices all over the world has a much greater potential for ecological impact than do nuclear reactors, ignoring the fact that most underground fuel storage tanks at gas stations regularly leak into the environment(!).

If the media waved the risk of driving cars in everyone’s faces the way nuclear power gets hammered, everyone would immediately call for banning cars… and this is especially pointed considering that tens of thousands of people actually die annually on the roads, as opposed to the zero annual deaths due to nuclear powerplants.

Let’s look at the risks of death in context:

  • Annual traffic fatalities in 2010:  ~33,000
  • Annual deaths in 2009 due to common chemicals:  ~1,500
  • Annual deaths due to nuclear powerplants and/or radioactive waste:  0

(The irony here is that the ionizing radiation exposure that is actually likely to cause an increase in cancer is the one no one really fears:  Medical x-rays and MRIs.  We’re getting more of them these days, and because this is ionizing radiation just like that being emitted by Fukushima, cancer statistics will likely see a bump as a result.)

Airline flight attendants receive a much higher radiation dose than any nuclear powerplant worker due to their proximity to cosmic rays (radiation) from space.  No one worries about flying, and everyone worries about the nuclear powerplant next door.

(For a concise versionof the nuclear safety argument, see my comment string here: )

A Final Thought

In terms of environmental impact, the Fukushima incident is arguably less significant than the Exxon Valdez or the BP oil spills, and it is on-par with the superfund sites I mentioned earlier.  Not rosy, but not the end of the world. 

So, how is it that so much fear and panic has been generated, trumping so many other more prevalent risks, when it is based literally on hot air?  It is a mystery to me. 

Perhaps it can be attributed ultimately to a habit of fear regarding radiation.

If we imagine the alternative – a culture providing socially unimpeded support for atomic and nuclear energy, power, and technology, (since our culture already awards this to toxic chemical technology,) we may well have already solved many of the energy problems of today.  Ancient stars worked tirelessly to produce the radioactive elements common in the deep Earth and sprinkled throughout the planet’s crust.  Misused, they are harmful.  Wisely used, they present energy sources with the ability to outlive our planet and our star.  (Talk about efficiency!)

In any event, my final point is to simply keep a critical eye open when it comes to media coverage of radiological events.  Watch for how infrequently health physicists or radiological engineers who are speacialists in nuclear technology are interviewed.  -And hopefully, if you’ve arrived at the end of this long-winded tirade, this has given some food for thought. 

Until next time!

Antimatter Hazard Symbol finds early adopters!

26 10 2011

Credit: Ben McGee

Those who have been long-time readers will remember a proposition I made for an antimatter hazard symbol (otherwise and less formally called a “warning sign”) back in May of 2010, which was based on currently-accepted international hazard symbology and color schemes. 

Well, to date, I am excited to report that the symbol has found some early adopters across the cyberverse.  Foremost amongst these is the website,, who made a stab at a somewhat technical, somewhat tongue-in-cheek article featuring the symbol last June.

Image credit: Armando/Redcrow Design, utilizing antimatter hazard symbol credit: Ben McGee

Much earlier, (a year ago last November,) the site “” incorporated the symbol into a fairly fantastic, paranoid montage with a nuclear mushroom cloud (at right) cresting a somewhat crass article about the potential development of antimatter weaponry. 

Patently alarmist, and the color scheme was artistically distorted, but still a cool image.

Finally, in August, a blog called “AngelsDoSpeak” included the symbol in a breakdown of potential nuclear fallout or activity symbols.  (The purpose of the symbol’s inclusion here on a religious site was a little confusing or perhaps ominous, but I’m happy with adopters all the same.)

While I should note that there have been other internet-promoted proposals for an antimatter hazard symbol, I feel quite strongly (based on my current work in the radiological protection industry) that instead of attempting to promote a new glyph or design into the hazard iconograhy pantheon, any antimatter symbol should derive from internationally-recognized symbology already in place.  This symbol should then simply be evolved/modified to capture antimatter’s potential hazard as a highly-reactive source of radiative energy, which I believe the above symbol does quite nicely.

-And while this effort is admittedly precautionary, the recent discovery that the Earth’s magnetic field traps naturally-ocurring antiprotons into a belt (a la the Van Allen Radiation Belts) may make orbital harvesting of antimatter a plausible pursuit.

In any case, feel free to promote the hazard symbol or use in your own projects or research if you so desire, and as always, comments are welcome.

Time travel physics in flux

4 10 2011

Something is rotten with the state of time travel/lightspeed physics.

To “c” (the symbolic designation for the speed of light), or not to “c”? 

-That is the question plaguing physicists in a number of recent studies with apparently conflicting results.

The "Flux Capacitor," a fictional device enabling instantaneous, bi-directional time travel. (Credit: Universal)

Traditionally, the speed of light is viewed as a barrier to physical movement.  According to conventional interpretations of Special Relativity, due to the time-slowing effect physical matter experiences as the speed of light is approached, movement through time is believed to stop at the very moment something hits “c.” 

As a result, lightspeed appears to be a barrier to movement, (see: lightspeed barrier,) and many have come to speculate based on certain geometric and philosophical arguments that moving faster than light might equate to backwards travel through time.

So, here’s where things get interesting. 

This summer, scientists at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology announced that in a meticulous data transfer experiment, they verified that photons don’t break the lightspeed barrier, and their effects don’t appear to even slightly precede their cause.  Hence, lightspeed is a barrier and causality is confirmed, thus ruling out backwards time travel.  (On a side note, Stephen Hawking has also endorsed this view.)

However, research published just last month by researchers from the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy appears to demonstrate that neutrinos do travel faster than light, throwing everything else into question.  In the study, scientists analyzed the speed of neutrinos being emitted from the particle accelerators at CERN and discovered them arriving faster than “c” by 60 nonoseconds(!) 

While fractionally small, this is a definitely measurable quantity of time with today’s instruments.

The Time Machine, from the movie of the same name. (Credit: Warner Bros/Dreamworks)

So, it appears that lightspeed might be traversable after all.  What is currently most unclear is whether or not these findings mean that backwards time travel is possible or simply that objects may continue to move faster through space than speed c.

(Note: I fall on the latter side of the fence, predicting allowable faster-than-light movement in my 2006 Kronoscope article.  This is due to what I believe is a Newtonian conceptual parasite infecting modern Relativity interpretations.)

In any case, it’s a very exciting time for time physics – the discovery of conflicting results at the margins often heralds the imminence of a new discovery!

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