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!


Calculating your own natural radiation dose in context

26 06 2012


Traditional Radiation Trefoil Hazard Symbol. (Image credit: ORAU)

A Dose of Radiation Information

How much radiation is normal?

In light of Fukushima, sensationalized media, political fear-stoking, and rampant misinformation regarding radioactivity, consider this post an easy-to-reference tool/resource.  With it, you can be armed to understand and quickly make sense of this over-mystified, natural aspect of reality when it comes up.

For starters, here’s the simple reality about how much radiation you receive in a year just for standing on Planet Earth:

The average natural annual radiation dose for a U.S. resident is about 300 millirem, and when including man-made commercial products and medical procedures (MRI scans, etc.), the average dose jumps up to 600 millirem per year.  This is what we all get every year and bears no known, measured relationship to developing cancer.

  • Note: For the international units, divide all “millirem” numbers by 100, (i.e. 3.6 millisieverts.)  Or, an online converter can be found here.

However, what does that mean?  I’m completely aware that unless you’re a professional in the field of health physics, (as I am,) this number has no context.  So, allow me to explain just what this really means using things we can all identify with.

Hold on to your hats.

So, What’s My Dose?

For context, below is a list of the amount of radioactivity you receive in a year from very familiar items/sources:

  • Cosmic radiation  = 26-96 millirem (higher with altitude)
  • From standing on the Earth itself (geology) = 20-90 millirem (higher nearer igneous mountains)
  • From your own brick/stone/concrete building = 7 millirem
  • From your own body (food/water!) = 40 millirem
  • From breathing (naturally-produced radon) = 200+ millirem
  • For flying 1,000 miles in an airplane = 1 millirem
  • From having a dental/chest/normal x-ray = 50 millirem each
  • From having an annual mammogram = 75 millirem
  • From having a single CT scan = 150 millirem
  • From smoking a pack of cigarettes a week (polonium) = 200 millirem
  • From consumer goods = 10 millirem

Just add these up to produce your own, custom average annual radiation dose.

Wait.  My house/food/body/atmosphere is radioactive?

Yes.  Not to fear.  Just like the small amounts of chemicals that we can reliably tolerate, (e.g., trace arsenic, lead, etc.,) so too are trace amounts of radioactivity completely tolerable.

Fukushima in Context

Now, as you can see in the above plot of the radioactivity measured at the entrance of Fukushima nuclear powerplant as the disaster happened, it looks pretty dramatic.

  • (Note: The numbers are reported in “micro”sieverts per hour, which are admittedly reading a much smaller span of time, (hours versus years,) but are in units 1,000 times smaller than the “milli”sievert international units described above.  This is important.)

However, instead of running for the hills just yet, let’s take a look at what the numbers actually say.

The March 15th hydrogen explosion at the plant, which occured roughly 84 hours after the earthquake, shows the largest spike of activity: for a brief period upwards of nearly 12,000 microsieverts per hour.

But let’s take this apart.  What does that mean?  12,000 microsieverts is the same as 12 millisieverts.  12 millisieverts is the same as 1,200 millirem.

Now, compare this to the above list of natural radiation values, with an eye toward the annual average does of 360 millirem.

Yes, if reading correctly, this implies that simply standing on planet Earth every year nets everyone the same external radiation dose that would have been received if standing at the gates of the Fukushima Daichi powerplant during the worst part of the disaster for a full 15 minutes.

With these, even worst-case numbers, it becomes obvious that one could stand at the entrance to Fukushima during the worst period of the disaster for a full three minutes and have earned only the equivalent radiation dose of… an average chest x-ray.

Granted, this isn’t something one would necessarily want.  This is upwards of 15% of your natural average dose.  -But your biology wouldn’t ever notice the difference.  And one could go many orders of magnitude more than that before there would be any reasonable expectation of an acute health effect.

More realistically, even standing at the Fukushima gates during the unprecedented event of external venting from the internal containment of reactor number 2, (with an exposure rate of 0.5 millisievert per hour), it’s a full hour of loitering there before one would rack up the external exposure of simple set of dental x-rays.

Funny how the perception and the reality differ, eh?

Unwanted radioactive material is serious, just as a leak from underground gasoline storage tanks that could contaminate drinking water is serious.  But that seriousness must be given honest context.


Hopefully this has provided a window into the reality of radiation protection, and it is my sincere wish that this was and will continue to be a useful go-to when radiation numbers come up in the media.

Feedback is welcome, and if desired, I would be happy to put other radiation values in context… (Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, going to the Moon, etc.)

Go forth and combat radiation misinformation!

[Sources for the above information: American Nuclear Society, the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement, the U.S. Department of Energy.]

Why try to become an astronaut / astrowright?

27 08 2010


Two NASA astronauts participate in construction and maintenance activities on the International Space Station; May 21, 2010. (Credit: NASA)

When I reveal what my professional aspirations really are, I get this question a lot.  -More than most would probably imagine.

What with the risks and the trials, the personal expense and the unknowns, why seriously work to venture into a frontier where so many of the necessities of life are nonexistent?

Sure, people talk and joke about being an astronaut when they grow up, but if-and-when one really considers going – when forced to really, seriously consider the realities of space travel in the modern era – people shy away.

The thought can be frightening.  It’s new.  For the most part, human space exploration is still in its infancy, and there are considerable (and likely unconsidered) risks.

Beyond the necessity of riding a controlled explosion out of the atmosphere, so much of what we take for granted, like air, water, food, atmospheric pressure, warmth…  It must all be taken with you.  Emphasizing the point, one of my closest friends (and a fellow astrophysics student at the University of Wyoming at the time) used to call me crazy for even considering leaving the comforts of planet Earth.  It definitely wasn’t for him.

So, for the sake of what is perhaps only a little introspective clarity, here it is:  Why do I want to leave?

Basically, I feel a compulsion toward the unknown.  While the dark, foreboding abyss beyond our current understanding and knowledge is terrifying to many (most?) of us, there’s another way to look at the coin.   For while the unknown may harbor risks and dangers, the unknown is also a place where anything is possible.  That’s where the discoveries are made.

The sensation of true discovery, (which admittedly I’ve only gotten a taste of once or twice,) is particularly intoxicating to me.  I don’t want to spend my life reading about others forging into the unknown; I want to be there, where the action is, where new history is being made.

Striking off into the blank spaces of our knowledge and experience, surprises are in store.  -And in a word made so much smaller by our mastery of global communication and connectedness, where so much in life is now predictable, surprises are a rare thrill.

I’ve had enough of studying what other have studied before, seeing what countless others have seen before.  For science, for posterity, for enhancing our understanding, and for sheer, personal desire, I want to be one of the ones to set human eyes on things for the first time.

A new life and everything that comes with it awaits above – new politics and policy, new science and new commerce, new challenges and victories – it is all ready and waiting for us to arrive to experience it.

That, my compatriots, is why I want to get off the rock.

I invite you to join me.

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