Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Irrational Fears of Radiation

A while back, I wrote an essay about the need of scientists to be "Shallow, Perky, and Superficial", in dealing with non-scientists about science issues. This is because, in my experience, the public is not impressed, and usually cannot digest or comprehend, straight, boring facts. Often, bells and whistles, and how one delivers the messages are more important than the validity of the message itself.

Today comes another piece of news about a very common scenario - the irrational fears of radiation. We have seen this happened many times, starting back in the 70's the the Three Mile Island incident that since then has crippled the advancement in the use of nuclear power in the US. It is also the source of the shut down of a very productive research reactor, the High Flux Beam Reactor, at Brookhaven. In the latest incident, a retired health physicist tries to set things straight about the amount of radiation that is expected from a proposed detonation of a chemical explosive at the Nevada Test Site called "Divine Strake". There are several important points being made in that article with regards to comparing the level of radiation that people get in everyday activities. People do not realize this, yet, they fear something when a number is given to them. Why? Because they do not have any reference point on what that value means. If you tell them you're getting 1 mrem, it means nothing to them. However, if you tell them that, in a year, the average background radiation that one would expect to get is 360 mrem, then that number now can be put in perspective.

This is something every scientist should understand when communicating with the general public. It is not sufficient to simply lay out the facts. Telling the public that they will be getting so-and-so amount of radiation is not enough, because the public has no way to digest that number and to put it in context with other amounts that they are getting. Whenever something like this is report, one must include other typical numbers so that the public has a reference point to compare to.

During the last Argonne Open House this past Oct, 2006, we had a large cloud chamber as a demonstration item. People who took a look at it were impressed, but many weren't sure what they were. We had a poster next to the chamber explaining them what they're seeing, i.e. in identifying the different type of tracks they see with the possible particles. Many were surprised when they read that these are "radiation" particles (alpha, beta, and muons), and asked where they're coming from. Many thought that the lab grounds were radioactive! When they were told that these really are background radiation that they would find even in their own home, many were shocked! They looked at the large number of tracks in the cloud chamber and suddenly realized that all of these particles are bombarding them right that very second! All I could say to them during this time was "This is the environment that we have evolved in!"

Of course, that statement in itself could open up another can of worms, but I think everyone who got to see the cloud chamber got the point.


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