What’s This Stuff Called Radiation?

By Engineer-Poet

What’s this stuff called radiation? What’s it doing here?
People make a big sensation, want us all to fear.
With Japan so far away, why do they raise alarm?
Is there cause for great emotion, can it cause you harm?

“Radiation” as a noun means “what is radiated”
Radio is radiation, be it loved or hated
If it wasn’t, we’d have no Marconi nor TV
How’d you live sans its baloney served to you for free?

Microwaves are radiation, radar waves are too
Moving upwards through the spectrum, infrared will do
To keep you warm, though it is radiation just the same
Your radiator there is radiating—thus the name!

Then we get to visible, and here we call it “light”
The Sun gives us its solar radiation (curb your fright!)
Don’t look directly, you’ll be fine, sunglasses, you’re no fool
But solar UV tans your skin and worse, so play it cool.

All these things and more are “radiation” and as such
You know that they can only hurt you if you get too much
Other things called “radiation” really are no worse
And I’ll try to talk a bit about them here in verse.

The differences from this point on may be a bit surprising
Everything that came before is called “non-ionizing”
Ionizing radiation is another beast
But treat it with respect and you need not fear it the least.

All the things I’ve named are photons, and I’m not yet done
Two more names are yet to go and then we can move on
Next from last is X-ray, yes it is a funny name
Wilhelm Roentgen found them and he is the one to blame.

X is for “unknown” because he knew not what he had.
X-rays help see things inside us, so it’s not so bad.
X-rays outline bones and teeth so that they can be fixed
Used properly, X-rays are good, so they should not be nixed!

Last are gamma rays, and for them I won’t make excuses
They can be dangerous, and yet they also have their uses
They help treat cancer, preserve food, and look at welds for real
What X-rays do for setting bones, the gamma does for steel.

All granite gives off gammas, granite countertops expose you
To just a bit of radiation, no I don’t propose you
Replace them with Formica! Oh, for crying in your beer!
Don’t do something in panic when there’s nothing there to fear.

People live on granite, and they build of blocks and sheets
They are healthy as the rest, as anyone who meets
them can attest. No, you don’t have fret or cry or worry.
But I have more stuff to discuss, and now I have to hurry!

Out there beyond the photons, there are things of matter too
There’s alpha, beta, neutron, muon, cosmic ray and you
Will have a fun time picking them apart; they are around
And you can’t get away from them, up high or underground.

Go fly up in an airplane or go skiing up in Vail
Muons rain down from the sky like subatomic hail
The muons come from cosmic rays, which come from far away
They fall upon the earth through both the night and through the day

Muons fall like rain, and the gammas rise like fountains
From the skies and rocks up in those craggy Rocky Mountains.
All this is radiation, but one thing we know that’s true
Is the people who live in it may be healthier than you.

Alphas come from atoms, and they are like atoms too.
An alpha is a helium minus electrons two.
Radon gives off alphas, and to look deep down at it
It doesn’t seem to do you harm unless you smoke – so quit!

Betas are electrons that are kicked out with some speed
They might sound dangerous, but the truth is that you need
Potassium to stay alive. You get some betas that way.
You get betas from bananas, and they’re healthy for you, aren’t they?

The last one is the neutron, which you will not often see
They are made inside reactors and they don’t last long, so free
Your mind from worry ’bout them; they are not likely to getcha
‘Less you get near a reactor core. You’ll never be, I’ll betcha!

So here’s a radiation primer, written up as verse
Maybe you could do it better. I know I could do it worse!

Version 1.1, ©2013 by the author.

This poem is redistributable for non-commercial use under the Creative Commons license.

Note: This poem first appeared as a comment by Engineer-Poet. He is a long time contributor to the deep discussions held here on Atomic Insights and uses a picture of William Shakespeare as his commenting icon. He provided the following introduction.

Since my honor as a poet has been slighted in another thread, I’ll defend it constructively by trying to come up with something that explains radiation to the people unfortunate enough to have been taught science by public schools, newspapers or (heaven forbid) the television. I can’t hold a candle to luminaries like the Digital Cuttlefish, but I can make things rhyme and scan and even make sense.

When I first asked his permission to promote his poem to a front page post by a Guest Author, he demurred, asking for some time to smooth off the edges of his rough draft. This is version 1.1; like most people who have been around a while, Engineer-Poet recommends caution before getting too excited about a “.0” version of anything. I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment. Here is his cover note for the published version:

All right, as promised, here’s the version with the splinters sanded off and a quick and dirty coat of lacquer on it (but what do you expect from an author of doggerel whose inspiration is Ogden Nash?).

About Guest Author

19 Responses to “What’s This Stuff Called Radiation?”

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  1. Cyril R. says:

    Not bad. A bit long. Some of the sync is off a bit at times. But not bad.

    Minor point: most of the UV spectrum is ionizing. UV is the border when it starts to get ionizing. Both UV-a (longer wave) and UV-b (shorter wave) are ionizing. It’s actually very dangerous because the damage is concentrated on the top layer of the body, the skin. It’s why the sun is the biggest cause of skin cancer worldwide. The yearly size of the kill zone is far bigger than Chernobyl will ever total, though for some reason people go out and sit all day on beaches with sparse clothes to protect against the carcinogenic rays.

    • Engineer-Poet says:

      I said it had the splinters sanded off and a slapdash coat of lacquer, not that it was polished.

      I wrote it mostly to show that you can actually write about such things in something other than turgid, plodding prose and even throw a little humor in it.

  2. Joris van Dorp says:

    So what would happen to you, if a nuclear plant is damaged?
    Like in Fukushima, where the plants’ safety was not well managed?
    There were explosions and smoke and the place looked a mess,
    How much radiation was released? Was it anyone’s guess?

    Not anyone’s guess, since nuke’s are designed,
    with even such extreme catastrophe’s kept in mind.
    So experts expected radiation would be mostly contained,
    despite the facilities having been broken and maimed.

    Measurements taken since have proven them right.
    Although radiation was increased, there’s no reason for fright.
    Even if the locals had ignored the accident and stayed,
    There would have been no reason for them to be afraid.

    The radiation dose they would have received,
    Would have been low enough for them to be relieved.
    Far less than nuclear workers are allowed to get,
    And far, far less than would have actually caused regret.

    Alas, the safety of the citizens was not well protected,
    The lessons learned from Chernobyl were neglected.
    Fear and panic were the major cause of suffering then,
    And in Fukushima, the same mistakes were made again.

    The population was evacuated in a hurried way,
    not even the elderly or hospitalized were allowed to stay,
    Traffic accidents and the stress of being forced to flee,
    Ended the lives of 1000 people like you and me.

    Nuclear power did not cause those people to die,
    Those who claim it did are telling a lie.
    It was unjustified fear spread by rascals on TV.
    That alone causes loss of life and prosperity.

    • Engineer-Poet says:

      Eh… needs work on both rhyme and scansion.  “contained” and “maimed”?

    • James Greenidge says:

      So experts expected (any) radiation would mostly be confined,
      despite the facilities largely being broken and maligned

      James Greenidge
      Queens NY

  3. Atomikrabbit says:

    Nuclear has found its Homer, and I don’t mean the safety inspector at Springfield NPP.

    Joris wins Best in Show for a Non-Native Speaker.

    Now let’s see some limericks, preferably not involving Nantucket.

    • Engineer-Poet says:

      Nuclear has found its Homer, and I don’t mean the safety inspector at Springfield NPP.

      What?!  Bart’s father has done more to shape the public image of nuclear power since… uh…

      Now let’s see some limericks, preferably not involving Nantucket.

      Iambic septameter’s no trick
      When you’re spending half your time home sick
      But this AtomikRabbit
      Wants to change my habit
      And get me to write him a lim’rick!

      No.  No, sir.  Never, and that’s final.

    • Twominds says:

      What about a haiku instead?

      Wall of water hit.
      Hurt a nuke to the core, still,
      its containments held.


      Undue fear of rads;
      so many people did flee
      into disaster.

      • Engineer-Poet says:

        I’m glad somebody else started the haiku/senryu trend.

        Massive wave hit shore
        Twenty thousand dead from it
        Atoms rule the news

  4. Suzy Baker says:

    Bravo! What a lovely fusion of art and science here. The end result is effective and entertaining communication- Great work to all involved!

  5. Engineer-Poet says:

    He … uses a picture of William Shakespeare as his commenting icon.

    That’s ol’ Bill with a pocket protector.  A pocket protector which he would have been proud to wear had he also gone through engineering school… which, given his polymath-level vocabulary, he might well have done had he lived in the 20th century.

  6. Daniel says:

    Great job Engineer-Poet !

  7. Simeon Freeman says:

    What a great set of poetry. I seem to recall stories of this form introducing me to other basic physical phenomena and scientific knowledge back when I was just a scamp. Keep it up all! What you do is very important.

  8. James Greenidge says:

    Precious Poem! Could tell you did serious overnighters getting it right! Kudos! Why not send it to nuclear education sites, and even more, try hawking it to some mainstream media outlets and see their reaction?

    Good job!

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

    • Engineer-Poet says:

      Could tell you did serious overnighters getting it right!

      Right?  Right?!  If I tried to get it right, I wouldn’t have been done with it this year.  This is comic poetry, not serious “art”.  Too serious is no fun.  I’ll throw overnighters at technical stuff, but this… I can’t burn midnight oil on it because I have to be smiling the whole time.  Life’s too short.

      Why not send it to nuclear education sites

      Because that’s too much like work, and you’re free to flog it on my behalf or even hack on it yourself; that’s what Creative Commons is about.

  9. Rick Maltese says:

    First congatulations to Poet Engineer and Joris
    And Rod for his support.
    Here is my poem/song already once mentioned by Rod in the past
    but think it’s relevant

    Support a Nuc​-​Nuc​-​Nuclear

    The radiant cosmic forces reigned upon us ever since the bang
    All the elements held promise. How the Alchemists have sang.
    The God called Thor was destined more than thunder to his name.
    The power of Thorium.

    What was in Curie’s pocket? What was Einstein’s M-C squared?
    With Rutherford’s experiments the groundwork was prepared.
    But greed and lust for power near annihilation spared.
    The Nuclear Quest rolled on.

    Support a Nuke support a Nuc Nuc Nuclear support a nuke.
    Please contribute and make it clear. We ain’t got nothing more to fear
    Support a Nuke you can’t dispute the weather patterns don’t compute
    Support a Nuke support a Nuc Nuc Nuclear.

    The ice caps are all melting, as the water levels rise
    The ocean’s getting sicker. Hear the bird and mammal cries.
    The Green’s and Anti Nukes have a field day with their lies
    But the truth is marching on.

    Support a Nuke support a Nuc Nuc Nuclear support a nuke.
    Please contribute and make it clear. We ain’t got nothing more to fear
    Support a Nuke you can’t dispute the weather patterns don’t compute
    Support a Nuke support a Nuc Nuc Nuclear.

    Listen here

  10. gallopingcamel says:

    Wow! Engineer-Poet and Joris are awesome! Thank you Rick Maltese, too.

    While I am trained in “Radiation Safety” and was directly responsible for “Personnel Protection” in environments with lethal doses of ionizing radiation delivered in a few seconds, I was impressed by the level of scientific comprehension.

    Cyril R pointed out that UV is ionizing radiation but I am sure our poets are well aware of that.

  11. Joffan says:

    Congrats to EngineerPoet, Joris and all poetic contributors… good work.

    I’d normally be in the scrum with this – not sure how I missed it. Call it post-Christmas fatigue.