As the title suggests, this week’s article is about radiation, but not just any variety. We’re discussing the kind that mutates superheroes in popular fiction and is produced by nuclear bombs. That’s right, today’s blog post is about ionizing radiation.
So what is it?
The CDC defines ionizing radiation as a form of energy that removes electrons from atoms and molecules from various materials, including air, water, and living tissue. Ionizing radiation includes both x-rays and gamma rays.
Microwave ovens don’t use it.
Yes, many people talk about “nuking” their food in a microwave oven, but such an appliance has nothing to do with ionizing radiation. Microwaves fall on the complete opposite side of the electromagnetic scale and are not radioactive. Interestingly enough, microwaves reflect off metal, which is why a metal object inside a microwave oven sparks.
The sun blasts it out all the time.
Yes, the sun sends out many forms of radiation. This includes non-ionizing forms such as visible light, ultraviolet and infrared light, and radio waves. It also is known to release x-rays and gamma rays. Fortunately, the nature of our atmosphere protects us from much of that ionizing radiation. Some does get through from the sun and other space sources, but it is in such low levels that it rarely affects us.
Marie Curie died from exposure to it.
Marie Curie, along with her husband Pierre, are often credited as some of our first nuclear scientists, but their discoveries didn’t come without complications. Marie eventually died of aplastic anemia brought on by radiation exposure. If he hadn’t been killed by a horse cart beforehand, it’s likely that Pierre would’ve also died of such complications himself. He already suffered from radiation burns, and the couple’s research papers are still too radioactive to be handled.
Animals at Chernobyl have evolved to resist it.
The area around the old Chernobyl nuclear power plant is populated by over 200 species of birds, as well as bison, wolves, lynxes, bears, and other wildlife. Except for more frequent albinism and some shortened lifespans seen in a few species, the radiation of the area appears to have little effect on these animals. Some have actually developed adaptations to deal with the increased radiation, such as frogs seen with darker than normal skin to resist exposure.
Plutonium’s symbol is Pu for a reason.
Following the rules laid out, the symbol for plutonium should be Pl, but it is not. Its co-discoverer, one Glenn Seaborg, decided that Pu was more appropriate. The symbol stands for “pee-yew,” a dark joke concerning the element’s use and its danger. It’s certainly a memorable one.
It causes mutations.
As seen at Chernobyl with the albinism occurrence, exposure to ionizing radiation can lead to unexpected mutations. This is because x-rays and gamma rays can damage DNA strands and cause cells to divide erratically. Most of these type of mutations lead to deformities and diseases. However, there are scientists researching how to use ionizing radiation to create new varieties of plants.
There is a naturally occurring nuclear reactor.
Located in Gabon are the Oklo uranium mines. Below these mines is a natural uranium deposit that contains an unusual amount of uranium-235. The concentration is so high that it was able to start a natural continuing nuclear chain reaction. This two billion-year-old reactor has been studied by nuclear scientists since its discovery in 1972.
It helps us date things from the past.
If you’re a nerd, you’ve heard of carbon-14 dating. All living things on Earth, both plants and animals, absorb carbon throughout their lifetimes, including the radioactive carbon-14. This absorption stops at death, but the carbon-14 continues to decay. By measuring how much of the element is left in a fossil, scientists can determine how long ago the lifeform died. Complicating matters, the burning of fossil fuels and old nuclear bomb tests have affected the levels of carbon-14 in the atmosphere, which means we have to readjust our readings to compensate.
Experiments were conducted on people.
Among the horrific nuclear experiments done on unsuspecting human beings, there was the time scientists fed mentally disabled children radioactive substances, gave pregnant women radioactive iron supplements, irradiated the testicles of prisoners, and exposed soldiers and prisoners to radiation. Radioactive substances were injected into unknowing test subjects as part of the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. And it wasn’t just the United States, either. The Soviet Union and other countries also conducted unethical nuclear experiments. The moral of this story: people are jerks.
I once took a tour of the Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada. It was an interesting place, to say the least. Among the ruins of the Nevada Test Site, we saw an old lab left over from the days of the nuclear discovery age, all surprisingly preserved in the dry desert air. As the sun set at the end of the tour, I could almost see the ghosts walking around, the echoes of a past most people haven’t seen. It was quite eerie.
Center for Disease Control- www.cdc.gov
Food and Drug Administration- www.fda.gov
Atomic Heritage Foundation- www.atomicheritage.org