Fall Guy: Part 13

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Fall Guy

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Humans are bad at assessing risk. We worry that cell phones might give us cancer while walking across the street texting. We opt out of body scanners at the airport, only to lay out in the sun for hours upon arriving at our destination. In a post-nuclear fallout type world, we would have to learn how to better assess the risks posed by radiation, something Phil Broughton spoke to me about over twitter:

The vast majority of the activated radioactive material that is made in the aftermath of a nuclear blast have incredibly short half lives. GOOD NEWS: it goes away quickly. BAD NEWS: while it’s still around it is BAD, BAD, SCORCH YOUR SKIN OFF BAD.

This is why you shelter from fallout: to hide from the immediate bad stuff in the first few days. Then you have to figure out what to do about the intermediate half life stuff that will make life unpleasant, but not prompt kill you dead, for the next several months like the radioiodines that will obliterate your thyroid.

After that, you start making your peace with the stuff which will remain for decades or centuries. Radioactive? Yes. Adds to your body burden of dose? Yes. Should I make an effort to avoid these if I can? Yes. Are they going to kill me dead if I don’t? No, but may increase your cancer risk over the decades.

The sad fact of the matter is that 1/3 of people are going to die of cancer, and there’s a hell of a lot of ways to raise that risk. The risk perception, however, is something else. if you have a 33.3% chance of drying of cancer and you raise it to 33.30001% with a higher background ionizing radiation dose, that is worse but damn near statistical noise.

This series is coming to a close in the next week or two. But I still want to hear your stories. If you’re an expert on radiation and have a story to tell, feel free to drop me a DM on twitter. I’d love to hear and feature more comics like this throughout the year!


Update: An earlier version of the comic listed UV light as a form of ionizing radiation, which was in error. According to Phil, ionizing radiation begins with x-rays:

We demarcated the wavelength of 100nm as the dividing line between ionizing & non-ionizing. Shorter than 100nm: ionizing. Longer than 100nm: non-ionizing. Like all things, there’s some blurring of this line depending on the interacting materials in question, but not much.

This goes into that other discussion of “Non-ionizing doesn’t mean non-hazardous.” Aim a microwave emitter at yourself and tell me how great that feels. Generally the damage mechanism of non-ionizing radiation is thermal, so, cooking.

UV, however, can to photochemical damage. There’s just enough energy to the photons to be able to start messing with the chemical bonding of long chain molecules. Can’t blast them apart like ionizing radiation, but enough to cause some “typos” if you will by breaking molecular bonds that won’t necessarily recombine correctly.

UV photochemical damage is weird. It’s similar to injury from ionizing radiation but different. The mechanisms often have same manifestations (e.g. erythema AKA sunburn). And then there’s the really weird stuff like flash cataracts from polymerization of the lens of the eye, like the clear albumen of an egg going white.

Now that’s fun to think about.

Want to read the whole comic all in one go? Check out the gallery version »

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