Measuring natural gamma radiation that human bodies have evolved to handle

Communicating complex subjects is often easier in person or on video. As one of my visually oriented friends likes to say, if a picture is worth a thousand words, a good quality video can be worth 30,000 words per second.

Here is a clear, short video that shows how natural gamma radiation surrounds us all of the time. It describes measurements and covers the important protection concepts of time, distance and shielding. The clip ends with this important message –

“Radioactive material deserves our respect but it does not require our fear.”

I hope that the same source produces additional episodes.

Hat tip to Suzy Hobbs-Baker at Pop Atomic Studios for providing the link.

Additional note: The original posting on The Weather Channel is Web Extra: Measuring Gamma Rays. This might run for people who are experiencing difficulty with the embedded version here.

About Rod Adams

29 Responses to “Measuring natural gamma radiation that human bodies have evolved to handle”

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  1. George Carlin says:

    Excellent video and excellent quote (I may have to steal it!).

    I participated in a science fair for young children last summer where we presented to them the same test as the fellow in the video performs. We had a detector and some common rocks, a curium sample from the nuclear department at my school, and a piece of Americium from a fire detector.

    I’m not sure how much of it got through to the kids but the parents were very curious. It was interesting to see some of the reactions from people to the fact that common rocks can be radioactive, and that fire detectors in everybody’s house’s have radioactive material in them.

    Some parents were a little standoffish about letting their kids go close to the samples but became much more comfortable when we demonstrated that distance really does wonders in shielding radiation (and that the samples were very low dose anyway even if the counter beeped like crazy).

  2. Bob Applebaum says:

    Hi Rod:

    Good video, but “evolved to handle” can be misleading. We evolved because DNA is inherently mutable. This is the same reason we get cancer. The mutations caused by radiation (even natural radiation) drive both speciation and cancer. For most of us, our DNA repair mechansims are good enough that we don’t get cancer until old age (that’s because DNA wants to perpetuate, it doesn’t care what body type it builds…oak trees, humans, squids, etc…and it is inefficient to maintain a body type after reproductive success, so thereafter we get cancer or DNA undergoes senescence.).

    I think a more illustrative video is that of a cloud chamber, shown here (the ending is really cool):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Efgy1bV2aQo

    • John Chatelle says:

      “Evolved to handle” is appropriate, because DNA and RNA were chosen through natural selective processes to maintain and carry somatic genetic information at a time when natural background radiation was even higher than it is today. A quantity of Potassium alone carried multiples of its current radiation output. It to was selected as a necessary nutrient. Life isn’t all that quick witted, but it had plenty of time.

      It Chose to make it’s information coding part of the structure, such that mismatched base pairs were more likely in mutated codons, and being weaker than correctly matched codons, are more likely destroyed by background and higher levels of radiation. That, combined with great redundance (multiple Cells), uses low levels of radiation to maintain somatic genetic information.

      Radiation helps. It would be bizarre otherwise.

      • Bob Applebaum says:

        “Evolved to handle” could be mis-interpreted as natural radiation (ionizing) doesn’t result in mutation of DNA. That was the potential mis-interpretation I was trying to address, because this blog has a history of promoting just that.

      • Bob Applebaum says:

        I just realized how bizarre your logic is. An analogy is that if I go into a shopping mall and start shooting a bunch of people, I might kill a pedophile. Therefore, shooting people in shopping malls help.

        That’s bizarre!

        • Brian Mays says:

          Bob – What’s bizarre is that you seem to think that a cell is equivalent to a human. That speaks volumes about your knowledge of biology.

          For what it’s worth, tens of billions of cells in the human body die each day due to apoptosis — i.e., programmed cell-death — which is generally advantageous to the person. So, yeah … shooting a few more of these “people” really doesn’t make that much of a difference.

        • John Chatelle says:

          Your analogy breaks down because good people are structurally similar to bad people. It is not true that good DNA is structurally similar to bad DNA.

          Mutated DNA is structurally weaker than non-compromised DNA with respect to background levels of radiation due to the high incidence of mismatched base pairs in mutated DNA.

          Which premise do you disagree with?

          1) Mutated DNA has a higher incidence of mismatched base pairs than uncompromised DNA.
          2) Genetic material with mismatched base pairs is structurally weaker with respect to background levels of ionizing radiation than genetic material with properly matched base pairs.

          Which of the 2 premises do you deem wrong? Both are clearly true.

          Of course this characteristic of DNA, combined with the great redundance of multiple cells as Brian points out, is even more pronounced in the RNA/ribosome cell machinery, because RNA isn’t structurally supported by the DNA characteristic of a strong Sugar/Phosphate lattice that is the primary support for DNA. RNA relies even more strongly on the matching of base pairs for it’s structure.

          It should be obvious that there exists levels of Ionizing radiation that might be beneficial to the maintenance of somatic genetics, unless of course, one is “locked in” to a mode of thinking.

    • Ben McGee says:

      Bob,

      That cloud chamber video is one of the coolest vids I’ve ever seen. Great link!

      Cheers,
      Ben

  3. James Greenidge says:

    Someone needs to give Suzy a box of cigars! Ben McGee! We just might’ve found our nuclear Carl Sagan! Non-dorky, humble, plain speaking and down to earth! I wanna see this fellow go toe-to-toe with glib Doc Kaku! We ought seriously contact and have him aboard or on tap if the nuclear community ever decides to do some serious adult public nuclear education on cable or YouTube. Kudos to Suzy!

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  4. D. Walters says:

    Wow. Rational, pedagogic, respectful. I’m sending this around to all my very many friends who panic at the word “radiation”.

    David

  5. Atomic-lies says:

    This is so deceptive. How about INGESTED beta, alpha and gamma particles? This video leaves all that out huh? Smoke is mirrors is all this industry has on its side which is essentially nothing. This video also fails to mention that the radiation coming out of the nuclear plants in nothing to do with “natural” and has raised the natural background unnaturally…which is a distinct danger to humans.

    • Twominds says:

      The nuclear weapons testing did most of the raising of the background radiation. And by now it has gone down a lot again.

      Ingesting radioactive isotopes (particles)? Yes we do, from the potassium and carbon in our food. All the others don’t even have a look in, compared to those two.

    • James Greenidge says:

      Re: “Smoke is mirrors is all this industry has on its side which is essentially nothing.”

      The burden of proof is on the accuser. If Greenpeace said they’d reports of orange-eyed octopus walking around nuke plant communities would you just swallow that assertion lock, stock and barrel? Most anti-nukes are that trusting of green groups, and sadly so are many of the science-illiterate public. Green groups royally get over reaping suckers — er, members simply because the fearful don’t do thorough research, period. Or are afraid of the soul-smacking contradictory results. It’s really up to you and your “green” sources to cough up the provable and traceable facts or else all you have is a radio-phobic rant based on too many Godzilla movies. Really, put the provable proof on the table. Just disliking nuclear because of groundless FUD or Hiroshima guilt or some philosophical beef isn’t any path to truth. Also, just as an aside, nuclear workers care as much about their families as hopefully you do, so they’ve an incentive to get it right — which the indisputable safety and health record of nuclear plants worldwide over 60 years shows and is for all to see and envy — profits or not (I hope YOU’RE making an evil profit and not on the gov’t dole!). That nuclear IS the safest and cleanest and least environmentally intrusive heavy-duty energy producer might not fit the fretful expectations and torches and pitchforks agenda of your group, but then it’s provable. Your move.

      James Greenidge
      Queens NY

    • Bob Applebaum says:

      The DNA doesn’t care where the ionizing radiation comes from (natural or not, internal or not). All ionizing radiation has the ability to mutate DNA, that’s the price we pay for being here (having evolved). That price means we get cancer from ionizing radiation. But the excess risk from excess radiation from nuclear power plants is trivially small. If you routinely eat smoked meats, you’re assuming a greater cancer risk.

      • Joel Riddle says:

        Thank you for that post, Bob. Now I am starting to get a craving for some decent barbeque for dinner. Good barbeque is tasty enough that I will assume that risk.

    • Engineer-Poet says:

      This is so deceptive. How about INGESTED beta, alpha and gamma particles?

      If you weren’t as ignorant as you are aggressive, you’d know that there’s no way to ingest any of those things.  Their lifespan in matter is measured in nanoseconds.  You can ingest radioisotopes which emit them, but that’s a different thing.

      This video also fails to mention that the radiation coming out of the nuclear plants in [sic] nothing to do with “natural” and has raised the natural background unnaturally…

      Add faulty grammar to the list of ways your post lacks sense.

      K-40 and C-14, ubiquitous in nature, emit the same sort of beta rays as every other beta emitter; electrons are electrons are electrons.  Alphas are alphas, and radon is radon is radon (the people who get more of it in Denver appear to have lower cancer rates than those who get less).  Gammas come from all sorts of things, including granite in flooring and countertops.

      which is a distinct danger to humans.

      The people who live in the high-radon, high-gamma, high-cosmic ray environments of Denver and Vail live longer and better than the rest of us.

      Your name is ironic; “Atomic-lies” are exactly what you’ve been fed.

    • ddpalmer says:

      Radiation causes the same effects whether emitted inside or outside the body. And the video was a short presentation of a specific issue. If you want to pay for them to make a longer video that covers the topic you want then by all means contact them and offer to pay for it.

      The radiation coming out of nuclear plants is from fission and fission is a natural process that takes place every day in every deposit of uranium all over the planet. So all a nuclear plant is doing is reducing background at the uranium mine site by a miniscule amount and raising the background at the plant site by a miniscule amount. It is a wash. Well except at the plant the radiation is shielded and the material is controlled, so actually the net result is probably a reduction in the worldwide background level.

      Lack of knowledge and stupidity is also a disctinct danger to humans. The evacuations at Fukishima and Chernobyl caused more harm to humans than the radiation.

      • Engineer-Poet says:

        Radiation causes the same effects whether emitted inside or outside the body.

        No it doesn’t.  Alpha radiation from outside the body can’t penetrate the outer dead layer of skin cells; beta radiation from outside the body can only penetrate far enough to cause something like sunburn.  Inside the body, they can do much more.  They must be treated with appropriate respect (NOT fear).

    • Ben McGee says:

      @Atomic-lies,

      Since no one addressed it directly, I thought I’d offer a quick reply. First, I understand your concern. It seems any industry will operate in its own self-interest, and if the history of industrialization is any guide, this tends to paint nuclear industry representatives in a disingenuous light. (-Representatives may even *be* disingenuous in some instances. To say otherwise ignored human nature.) However, let me clarify my own position. My experience with “radiation” is derived from geology, astrophysics, and environmental science – essentially my background in studying how radioactive elements were and are naturally formed, where they manifest on Earth and why, and how to clean them up when they’re in a place we don’t want them.

      To your specific concerns, you’re right that the video was very general. -And intentionally so. It was designed to pair with an episode that specifically deals with the effects of a gamma-ray burst from a nearby star, so the video is gamma-ray-centric as a result.

      As for ingesting particles? You’re also right – much of the real danger in radiation exposure is collecting radioactive elements in a form you take with you. But rest easy. Ingesting a beta particle (an electron) might make you *slightly* more prone to get shocked when you touch a metal doorknob, but there are no lasting effects to one entering your mouth. Nor for alpha particles (essentially a helium atom missing a couple of the electrons you just swallowed). -And you can no more swallow a gamma particle (photon) than you can swallow rays of sunlight.

      As for physical bits of the material that are emitting these particles, such as the mineral sample I used in the above video? Yes – if I were to swallow little chunks of the rock, the health effects could be much more pronounced. But that isn’t “background” radiation any longer, nor is it the straightforward exposure to the gamma rays themselves that served as the subject of the video. (-There’s literally only so much one can discuss in two minutes!)

      Finally, I encourage you to watch the video again with a specific eye toward to the “Distance” demonstration. With no shielding, being only a few feet from a decent source of radiation means that you experience nothing above background. A nuclear powerplant is heavily shielded, and the closest one can get to one (without working there) is hundreds if not thousands of feet away. Therefore, the mere presence of a powerplant has not affect the background level of radiation at all.
      –Don’t believe me? You can (if you were so inclined) perform this experiment yourself: Purchase any of a number of relatively inexpensive “geiger-counters” (eBay, Amazon, others), and drive by a nuclear powerplant. You’ll see with your own eyes that the background level of gamma radiation has not changed at all. -And if you drive far enough, a change in background radiation will be more driven by your proximity to Earth’s natural radioactive sources, (e.g., the Rocky Mountains), than to relatively insignificant installations (on a state or continental scale).

      So, as I said above, I’ll reiterate that radioactive material should be respected, but it doesn’t require your fear of elevated background radiation or ingesting radioactive particles.

      Hopefully this was helpful.

      Cheers,
      Ben

      • Reese says:

        Mr. McGee,

        That was a swell response to “Atomic-Lies.” I doubt you’ll have much effect with the person, but as Rod has said elsewhere, for those curious to look into the conversation, your reply will be beneficial.

      • Rod Adams says:

        @Ben

        Thank you for participating in the conversation here. Keep up the good work in communications, I think you are a natural. I’m so happy that you and Suzy Hobbs-Baker have made contact; she also has a way with words and images that can make a real difference in the way that people understand nuclear energy.

  6. Daniel says:

    Googlemaps is focusing on the town of Namie where 21,000 residents once lived. Their hope is to have the citizens come back to their homes.

    Now why were they evacuated again ?

  7. Engineer-Poet says:

    <sigh>

    The embed won’t play under Ubuntu, and I’m unable to extract a link to anything that will.

    • James Greenidge says:

      Re: “The embed won’t play under Ubuntu, and I’m unable to extract a link to anything that will.”

      If you mean the video clip, I run Mint XFCE/MATE 12.10 (using Ubuntu base) and the video link runs perfectly. I suggest you to move up to Mint anyway; it’s so much more flexible!

      James Greenidge
      Queens NY

    • Andrew Jaremko says:

      EP – I found the clip on YouTube as well, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akpTBolK6ag

      For those who want to download or remix videos, I’ve started using fullrip.net, a free site that helps grab videos from YouTube.

  8. Ben McGee says:

    Rod (and commenters),

    Being fairly new “on-scene,” I just wanted to convey that I am extremely appreciative of and flattered by your positive sentiments in the post and from those in the comments that followed. It was never my intent to publicly engage in science education outreach, but a series of highly improbable events have now led projects like the above video to fall into my lap. Further, (due to the fact that the segment was all pure improvisation), it’s nice to hear that my (necessary) generalizations for a public audience were seen both as intelligible and at least somewhat compelling. =)

    I am beginning to feel that I could contribute in a substantive way to what I see as an extremely important public conversation about (essentially) fundamental science – one now woefully one-sided and prone to irrational (fear-based?) assumptions, micharacterization, and hype. In short, I’m in, and I’m glad to have the fortune to (at least in a small way) be in a position to engage.

    Please feel free to contact me to discuss further or if you (or others) see any possible opportunities for collaboration. I hope all is well, and take care.

    Cheers,
    Ben

    • James Greenidge says:

      Greetings Ben and great work!

      If I had a wish list it is for you to appear on The Atomic Show roundtable with its regular heavy hitters to discuss methods of getting the good word out about nuclear and FUD-busting on a mass-publicity scale via TV ads or a YouTube teach-in series etc, not to mention the need for a (YouTube based?) nuclear “9-1-1″ truth squad cadre to rapidly respond and put in perspective or rebuff FUD hurtled by anti-nukes as Arnie and Helen and Kaku and an often science-illiterate (and green-biased) media exploiting nuclear related events such as the Hanford tanks and minor but often exaggerated issues that occur at nuclear plants. I mean on the NRC site there are posters terrified by the idea of plants ever being flooded and steam turbine failure issues and asteroids zeroing in on nuclear plants! Nuclear energy has an enviable near-nil mortality/damage record in and out of accidents which it needn’t be ashamed of but which is seldom used! We need a squad of reason and sanity out there!!

      Thanks a trillion for stepping up to the plate!

      James Greenidge
      Queens NY

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