This is the difference between low kinetic energy (top) and high kinetic energy (bottom), as illustrated in the 1956 Disney book Our Friend the Atom. It may be useful in visualizing some of the ideas presented in my recent feature on space radiation.
From Fresh Photons, a fantastic blog chock full of science pictures.
Via David Ng
Space is full of radiation. It’s impossible to escape. Imagine standing in the middle of a dust storm, with bits of gravel constantly swirling around you, whizzing by, pinging against your skin. That’s what radiation is like in space. The problem is that, unlike a pebble or a speck of dirt, ionizing radiation doesn’t bounce off human flesh. It goes right through, like a cannonball through the side of the building, leaving damage behind.Read the rest
X-Ray Specs — the cheap glasses that ostensibly allow you to see the bones in your own hand and/or ladies' undergarments — are instantly familiar to anybody who read comic books in the 20th century. Last week, The Onion AV Club shared a fascinating video showing that immature gags about x-ray vision began long before the Marvel Comics' advertising department was even a glimmer in somebody's eye.
"The X-Ray Fiend" was a short film produced in 1897 — just two years after William Rontgen gave x-rays their name. It's basically an X-Ray Specs gag writ large, with the aforementioned fiend checking out the insides of a necking couple. You can watch it at The Onion.
That video sent me toodling around through some of the fascinating history surrounding x-rays in pop culture. Rontgen wasn't the first to discovery x-rays, but he was the first person to really study them in depth and his x-ray photograph of his wife's hand kicked off a public sensation. To give you an idea of how into x-rays everybody was for a while, the AV Club story actually includes a link to a 19th century Scientific American how-to that promised to teach the reader to make their own x-ray machine at home. You know. For funsies.
It's kind of crazy how popular x-rays became, considering how dangerous they can be. The Scientific American piece, for instance, now comes with a 21st century disclaimer warning that "Many operators of the early x-ray systems experienced severe damage to hands over time, often necessitating amputations or other surgery." Which brings us to Clarence Dally ...
Read the rest
At Grist, Jess Zimmerman has an interesting piece about a lake near a notoriously leaky former Soviet nuclear research site, where the radiation level is so high that an hour on the beach can be enough to kill you.
You can’t really blame Lake Karachay for acting up — it comes from a really rough area. The lake is located within the Mayak Production Association, one of the largest — and leakiest — nuclear facilities in Russia. The Russian government kept Mayak entirely secret until 1990, and it spent that period of invisibility mainly having nuclear meltdowns and dumping waste into the river. By the time Mayak’s existence was officially acknowledged, there had been a 21 percent increase in cancer incidence, a 25 percent increase in birth defects, and a 41 percent increase in leukemia in the surrounding region of Chelyabinsk. The Techa river, which provided water to nearby villages, was so contaminated that up to 65 percent of locals fell ill with radiation sickness — which the doctors termed “special disease,” because as long as the facility was secret, they weren’t allowed to mention radiation in their diagnoses.
Science blogger Ed Yong whipped up this awesome graphic and made me a one-off tshirt to wear to radiation treatment for breast cancer.
Cancer patients, radiation oncologists, radiation therapists, and the people who love them all can make their own t-shirts and stickers with the JPEG if you are so inclined!
A public info campaign in Japan compared radiation to a nagging wife. Apologies have been made. Reuters' Miki Kayaoka:
The Japanese Atomic Energy Agency devoted a page on its website to an effort to "make the hard words used in the nuclear power industry" more easy to understand, particularly for women. The page, which included a cartoon of an angry, fist-waving wife and her cowering husband, compared the wife's yell to radiation. It continued the metaphor by saying that the women's increasing agitation could be compared to "radioactivity", while claiming the wife herself was comparable to "radioactive material".
Science blogger Lee Falin has a potentially useful analogy for putting radiation dose and risk into perspective—treat it like currency. Part of the problem with explaining radiation is that there are multiple units of measurement in play and they're all unfamiliar to the average Joe and Jane. The numbers get confusing quickly and when numbers get confusing, most people just tune them out. "Blah blah blah blah radiation blah blah" is both an unhelpful message, and an often terrifying one.
Falin tries to get around that problem by putting radiation doses into a number system that everybody knows and uses every day—money. He starts by deciding arbitrarily that 1 sievert of exposure is worth $1000. Once you've got that established, it's easier to understand relative doses. In this system, getting $4000 all at once is a deadly dose. Most of us get $2.00-$3.00 a year in background radiation exposure. A mammogram is worth .40.
This is not a perfect method. In particular, it seems to work best for acute exposure. Falin still hasn't totally solved the problem of explaining the accumulation of radiation over time. But I think that this idea—thinking of radiation doses in terms of money—could go a long way to helping some people understand this stuff a little better. I really liked how he explained cancer risks, for instance:
What about the long term risk of cancer caused by radiation exposure? According to the EPA, an average of 2,000 out of every 10,000 adults will die from some form of cancer. If you expose everyone in that group to an extra $10.00 of radiation in one year, the number will jump to about 2,005 people.
Bunnie Huang, cracker of the Xbox and creator of the Chumby, wanted to do something to help people in Japan following the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. He created a reference design for a cheap, reliable, stylish Geiger counter for everyday carry, under the auspices of Safecast, a group that works on ongoing disaster relief in Japan. Being a consummate hardware hacker, bunnie has documented the steps he took along the way to create his free/open Geiger counter.
After much discussion and review with the Safecast team, we decided that a key component of the user experience should be a graphic display, instead of a 7-segment LED readout. Therefore, a 128×128 pixel OLED panel was incorporated into the design. The OLED panel would be mounted behind a continuous outer shell, so there would be no seams or outward design features resulting from the introduction of the OLED. However, as the OLED is not bright enough to shine through an opaque white plastic exterior shell, a clear window had to be provided for the OLED. As a result, the naturally black color of the OLED caused the preferred color scheme of the exterior case to go from light colors to dark colors. User interaction would occur through a captouch button array hidden behind the same shell, with perhaps silkscreen outlines to provide hints as to where the buttons were underneath the shell. I had originally resisted the idea of using the OLED because it’s very expensive, but once I saw how much an LND7317 tube would cost in volume, I realized that it would be silly to not add a premium feature like an OLED. Due to the sensor alone, the retail price of the device would be in the hundreds of dollars; so adding an OLED display would help make the device “feel” a lot more valuable than a 7-segment LED display, even though the OLED’s presence is largely irrelevant to the core function of the apparatus.
Watch Online "Hacker" Group Crowdsources Radiation Data for Japanese Public on PBS. See more from PBS NEWSHOUR.
On PBS NewsHour tonight, a report I helped the program's science correspondent Miles O'Brien produce about the challenge people in Japan face of finding and sharing reliable data about radiation contamination, after the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
Embedded above, a conversation between Miles and NewsHour host Hari Sreenivasan about our report, which focuses on a grassroots group called Safecast that measures, maps, and publishes data on radiation contamination levels throughout the country.
While in Tokyo, Miles spoke to Hari Sreenivasan about his trip with Safecast workers into the voluntary exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, where they detected levels reaching the equivalent of six X-rays per day.
He also filled us in on his conversations with Japanese officials working in evacuated areas and Japanese residents eager for more information about the consequences of the nuclear accident.
I'll post the video for the full feature when it's available online.
Since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, you’ve probably heard me and other people talk about the radiation exposure we experience in everyday life.Read the rest
Officials were worried this week, when they discovered a radiation hotspot in Tokyo, kicking off readings as high as 3.35 microsieverts per hour. (For context, a dental x-ray is about 5 microsieverts. This wasn't a massive amount of radiation, but it was concerning. The AP reports that readings of that level have been found in the Fukushima evacuation zone.)
The good news: This has nothing to do with Fukushima. It turned out to be an extremely localized hotspot, and officials found the real source nearby.
The bad news: The real source turned out to be something the AP is describing as "mystery bottles" stored under someone's house. No. Really.
So, I guess the takeaway to this story should be something like: Japanese officials find source of radiation hotspot, and are no longer worried that it's being caused by Fukushima. Instead, they are now worried about why somebody in Tokyo is storing bottles of a radioactive substance under a house.
(Via Steve Silberman)
My old employers, mental_floss magazine, have a new editor and some cool new stories out in their September/October issue. One is about a kid who built a nuclear reactor at age 14. No, not that kid. Meet Taylor Wilson, a kid who shares some hobbies with the more-famous "Radioactive Boy Scout" David Hahn, but with, apparently so far, less tragic results. (It helps that Wilson, unlike Hahn, discussed his plans with adults who helped set him up with the right safety environment to build his reactor in.) Another difference: Wilson's interests lie with fusion, not fission.
By the time Wilson stumbled across Fusor.net, 30 hobbyists worldwide had managed to produce the reaction; Wilson was determined to become the thirty-first. He started amassing the necessary components, such as a high-voltage power supply (used to run neon signs), a reaction chamber where fusion takes place (typically a hollow stainless steel sphere, like a flagpole ornament), and a vacuum pump to remove air particles from the chamber (often necessary for testing space equipment).
Wilson also funneled money collected from Christmases and birthdays toward buying radioactive items, many of which, to his surprise, were available around town. Smoke detectors, he learned, contain small amounts of a radio-active element called americium, while camping lanterns contain thorium. In antique stores, he found pottery called Fiestaware that was painted with an orange uranium glaze. Wilson trolled websites such as eBay for an array of nuclear paraphernalia, from radon sniffers to nuclear fuel pellets, and came to own more than 30 Geiger counters of varying strengths and abilities. Most of Wilson’s radioactive acquisitions weren’t dangerous, given their small quantities. But a few—vials of powdered radium, for example—could be fatal if mishandled, which is why he’s never opened them. (Although he’s been tempted.)
There's a longer preview of the story online. The rest is in the new print issue.
During the early weeks of the Japan 3/11 crisis, after a tsunami critically damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, we talked on Boing Boing about why Americans on the West Coast didn't need to worry about exposure to radioactive fallout. Shorter version: The levels of radiation that made it across the Pacific were far too low to cause a serious health concern.
Now here's something really interesting: The levels of fallout that made it across, while too low to pose a risk to humans, were detectable by extremely sensitive scientific equipment. And those measurements are now being used to document what happened at the site of the disaster.
In the process of trying to cool down the overheating reactors, officials in Japan dumped sea water and reaction-slowing boric acid into the reactor cores. The resulting chemical reaction—chloride ions in salt water combining with fast-moving neutrons from the reactor—produced a form of radioactive sulfur. Meanwhile, scientists at the University of California, San Diego, were already measuring sulfur particles in the air as part of climate research. Days after the crisis began, their instruments picked up the radioactive sulfur that had crossed the ocean.
Now, using modeling and some basic knowledge about how particles behave, they've been able to use the information they gathered in California to estimate how high radiation levels were in Fukushima in the early days of the crisis. A couple of things they've found: Further evidence that at least one of the reactor cores suffered a meltdown, and evidence suggesting that the damaged reactors didn't re-start after the emergency began—a possibility that has been pointed out by other scientists. I'll have a more in-depth look at this study later this week. For now, check out the write ups at Nature News and USA Today.
The full research paper is at The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
This image shows two spots at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, at the bottom of a ventilation stack between the No.1 and No.2 reactors, where radiation levels are still high enough to kill a human being. I'm talking about the quick-death-by-radiation-poisoning sort of "kill," not the possible-death-by-cancer-at-some-point-in-the-future sort. At the colored spots, radiation levels were measured at 10 sieverts (10,000 millisieverts) per hour.
The image was captured using a gamma ray camera, the same sort of equipment that researchers use to track radioactive isotopes in the human body as part of medical treatments.
Image: REUTERS/Tokyo Electric Power Co
Irradiating food doesn't make it radioactive, and it does kill dangerous bacteria, like the E.coli that killed many Europeans this summer. But it's also not a panacea against food poisoning and it's definitely not the most popular idea ever thought up. In a column in the New York Times, Mark Bittman examines the evidence behind irradiation, and how that evidence does and doesn't get considered in the choices we make about food.
When it comes to irradiation, you might need a primer. (I did.) Simply put, irradiation — first approved by the FDA in 1963 to control insects in wheat and flour — kills pathogens in food by passing radiation through it. It doesn’t make the food radioactive any more than passing X-rays through your body makes you radioactive; it just causes changes in the food. Proponents say those changes are beneficial: like killing E. coli or salmonella bacteria. Opponents say they’re harmful: like destroying nutrients or creating damaging free radicals.
Many people are virulently for or against. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, says that irradiation “could do for food what pasteurization has done for milk.” (The main difference between irradiation and pasteurization is the source of the energy used to kill microbes.) Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch — which calls irradiation “a gross failure” — told me it was “expensive and impractical, a band-aid on the real problems with our food system.”
There are a few people in the middle. Former assistant secretary of the Department of Agriculture (USDA) Carol Tucker-Foreman is mostly anti-, but said that if she ran a nursing home or a children’s hospital — a place where people with weaker-than-average immune systems were cared for — it “might be something I wanted to do.” Marion Nestle, a New York University nutrition professor and the author of “Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety” (and a food-movement icon), allows that “the bottom line is that it works pretty well if done right, and I’m not aware of any credible evidence that it does any worse harm to foods than cooking. But it isn’t always done right, and foods can become re-contaminated after irradiation.”
Via Andy Revkin
The current evacuation zone in Fukushima is only 20-30 kilometers. The Japanese government has compensated the evacuees from inside that zone and has financially supported them in moving out of it. However, as more and more high levels of radiation are being discovered outside of the evacuation zone, many more Fukushima residents (and many others located nearby Fukushima) want the government to also help them logistically and financially so that they can move out further away from the nuclear plants. Especially since many children are now being exposed. But the government does not want to do this at all and many people are getting very upset. This video was filmed in Fukushima at the Corasse Fukushima Building on July 19, 2011. The meeting was entitled "Japanese Government Discussion - Demands for Evacuation Authority". This meeting was attended by residents of Fukushima and some Representatives for the Nuclear Safety Commission Of Japan. It was filmed by some anonymous members of the "Save Child" website. This site includes Japanese news about the Fukushima Nuclear disaster, advice on how to avoid contamination, and many, many related videos. This site is much like enenews.com on steroids! I checked domaintools.com and the name of the registration is private. You can see the original Japanese videos of this meeting on the Save Child website here (English), and on Youtube here. This video was translated by pejorativeglut. And, for sure, the English subtitles are correct. I was not involved in the production of this video.