For me, one of the most irritating things about woo-mongering is the implication that we need magic and fairy stories to make something awesome. But as this blog as a whole and this series of posts in particular aims to prove, reality is plenty awesome enough on its own.
Today’s example of awesomeness is… radiation.
Radiation is a bit of a scary word these days, isn’t it? It is probably one of the most consistently misunderstood things on the planet. Five minutes Googling yields an awful lot of shouty articles about the evils of radiation, most of which show absolutely no understanding of what radiation is, and just how many ways it benefits our lives.
There are two distinct classes of radiation: ionising and non-ionising. Ionising radiation, like X-rays, gamma rays and alpha particles, has sufficient energy to displace one or more electrons from an atom, and if this occurs in an atom which is part of a molecule which is part of you, there is a potential for you to be damaged. Non-ionising radiation, such as radio waves and visible light, does not have enough energy to mess with electrons in atoms, though its energy can interact with atoms in other ways.
This post is going to stick to talking about ionising radiation because it’s both more scary and more interesting. In my opinion, implausible theories about the damaging effect of mobile phone radiation or Wi-fi signals are dull, repetitive and well debunked elsewhere.
Let me start by saying that ionising radiation is undeniably dangerous. Short-term, intense exposure can cause burns and long-term exposure is linked to cancer and genetic damage. However, there are other important facts that are often overlooked. First, radiation is not unnatural, or even unusual. We are all exposed to background levels of radiation (from cosmic rays and natural radioactive materials, etc) all the time. Second, the potential of radiation to cause harm is all down to dose, because your body is able to cope with certain amounts.
In my work at ISIS (see the Fifth Day of Awesome) I come into contact with radiation because my samples become radioactive after hanging out in the neutron beam. I monitor the levels using a Geiger counter and the samples are stored in a lead-lined container until they are safe to take away. Even when the sample is “active” I know I can keep myself safe using the simplest of methods, like waiting a few minutes for most of the radiation to decay, keeping them at arm’s length and wearing simple rubber gloves. This is honestly enough to prevent getting myself irradiated. See? It’s not that scary after all.
Let me now say that ionising radiation is equally undeniably, incredibly useful. As well as the obvious importance of nuclear power, the use of X-rays and radioisotopes have revolutionised diagnostic medicine, and the use of radiation therapy for cancer treatment has saved thousands of lives. But there are also other, less obvious and equally awesome uses. Food irradiation can be used to destroy dangerous bacteria like salmonella and extend shelf life, and before anyone asks, it does not make the food radioactive. Chemists and physicists can use radioactive versions of common molecules to follow chemical reactions and biological processes more easily. The understanding gained from these sorts of experiments is a vital part of scientific research and can directly impact medical and industrial innovation. Electron-beam radiation can clean exhaust gases from power stations and industrial plants. Even the humble smoke detector contains a tiny source of radiation.
So for its million uses in medicine, industry, science and more, I award ionising radiation the stamp of awesome!