As usual, all letters in Physics and Society are edited and/or shortened by the Editor.
More on Lay Science Books vs Lay Science Knowledge (cf. P&S, July 98, p.2)
Ever since the rise of modern science in the 17th century, many scientists have tried to bring to the attention and enrichment of the general public the discoveries and world views of science: through public lectures and popular writings. By and large these have given flavor for, if not a deep understanding of, technical science.
At the same time, philosophers and theologians have always tried to interpret and extrapolate the latest theories and findings of science. Up until the 20th century most of these interpreters and extrapolators relied on original (technical) sources and generally grasped the technical aspects of what they were commenting upon.
In the course of our own century, however, the technical (and mathematical) aspects of science, especially of physics, became so abstruse and complex that only the initiates could fully understand the essence and implications of it all. The "popular" writings of intelligent and philosophically-mindedphysicists lost quite a bit in the translation (to the popular style). As result, expositions, and those other able writers who got their own information second hand, had created an altogether new genre of scientific knowledge which consists largely of poetic and picturesque world views, dubiously related to hard-core science, but rich, soothing, and far more suitable for public consumption This has become fertile ground for unbridled imagination, mystical interpretations, and theological extrapolations: all of which are loosely bound in interesting ways with the formulas, utterances, and puzzles of modern physics. Whether it is relativity..., every revelation of 20th century physics (whether tentative or final) has given rise to profuse and productive extrapolations: often to establish the limits of the scientific enterprise, to prove again and again the existence of God, preferably of a particular theology, and to show that the sacred books (of ones own cultural affiliation) had said more or less the same thing in symbolic ways.
I doubt that any money-consuming "study" will reveal anything important, useful, or significant than what I have listed above.
What the scientific community/organizations need to do is not so much to teach to the public the latest scientific discoveries (like the mass of the neutrino or the existence of a planet in a distant stellar system, but exert a good deal more effort to educate the children in schools on the framework, values, and methodology of science, as well as the elementary principles of astronomy, biology, and physics.
Varadaraja V. Raman
Informing the Public or Disparaging Them
In reading the July issue of Physics and Society I was surprised and disappointed at the "Editor s Comment" on the published letters concerning the Ward Valley nuclear waste repository, written by Alan Pasternak and myself.
Contrary to the Editor s Comment, the letters do not at all "disparage the public for its very real fears". Indeed, the point of my letter was just the opposite; that "we in the technical community" are failing the public by not providing them "with the information needed to allow them to choose a sound, vital, energy course." And again, in Mr. Pasternak s letter there is no disparagement of the public, but rather concern over the success of anti-nuclear groups in utilizing legal delays, not sound technical reasons, to stop progress on radioactive waste disposal.
The point is that lack of sound information can be devastating to the public . Consider the deaths due to the Chernobyl accident. There were some forty deaths in the USSR due to nuclear radiation from the accident. But there were some fifty thousand baby deaths in Europe due to abortions by mothers who feared the affects of the radiation coming from Chernobyl. Actually, the added radiation was less than the added amount I would receive if I moved to Denver. And guess what? People live longer in Denver than they do in California. Clearly, the people in Europe were not informed of the negligible (maybe healthy) effects of low radiation levels. Are those in our country more informed? As the Editor (ES) suggests, should we ignore their fears?
What of the potentially disastrous Greenhouse Effect? Have we informed our people that the only way to significantly mitigate it is by a world wide expansion of nuclear energy?
And why do we keep our troops in Saudi Arabia? As the world's energy use doubles to quadruples in the next half century, a key means of meeting world needs and avoiding international hostilities over scarce energy supplies is the expansion of nuclear energy.
The point is that our population, and our children and grandchildren may suffer greatly in the future from today s public lack of sound information and perspective on the energy and nuclear energy situation. Do we technical people not have a responsibility to try to bring forth meaningful technical perspective which could greatly ameliorate the risks? Or, as ES seems to advise, should we ignore the situation, and the anti-nuclear garbage, even if it may result in a devastating future for our nation and the world?
Retired VP & General Manager of GE Nuclear Energy
154543 Via Vaquero, Monte Sereno, CA 95030
Phone and Fax: (408) 395- 9039
Public Understanding of Radiation Hazards: Need for New Radiation Standards?
...one of the fundamental obstacles to better public awareness of the issues in this area, and very likely the source of irrational fears by the public, is our lack of consistent and appropriate units in discussing radiation and radioactive waste. How is the public, or even an interested non-specialist, supposed to comprehend issues that involve, at varying times: Curies, (and density units such as picoCuries per liter, picoCuries per gram), rads, rem, days or years (for isotope or effective body half-lives), electron-Volts, and of course the metric Bequerels, sieverts, grays, etc, not to mention the chemical and physical properties of the 300 or so regularly encountered specific isotopes...
For example, how is a lay-person supposed to compare 1 picoCurie per gram of plutonium with 10,000 picoCuries per liter of tritium, as has been reported in the ground near Brookhaven Lab? Aside from the inconsistent density units, they would be unlikely to know that Pu-239 releases 300 times as much energy in each decay, and remains 2000 times longer, so 1 Curie of Pu-239 represents 600,000 times as much relatively-long-term radioactive energy release as 1 Curie of tritium. The Curie is probably the most egregious unit when "total Curies" for a huge number of different isotopes are lumped together, as I have seen in Physics Today and elsewhere.
In my opinion the standards for reporting radioactive contamination and exposure should be revised to use 3 basic measures:
1. total radioactive energy (eg. in Joules) following normal decay chains.
2. radioactive energy release per second (ie. Watts)
3. Exposure factor (unitless) - quantity of (1) or (2) absorbed or exposed to along with appropriate decay factors.
The first measure gives an upper bound to energy release - and reveals a point not often understood: total radioactive energy always decreases with time (barring some caveats with neutron activation, fusion reactors, and accelerators). A fission reactor converts high energy-content
Uranium to much lower energy-content mid-size nuclei - the only reason radioactive energy release (2) increases is because of the much shorter half-lives of the newly created isotopes. The second measure is basically the product of the decays per second (Curies) with the energy released - a reasonable measure of the current danger level of a particular contamination environment. The third measure is where the particular details of chemistry and the physical interaction with the environment come in - and may really be composed of several distinct types, depending on the types of exposure possible (ingestion, inhalation, or simple presence in the neighborhood). Plutonium may in fact be less dangerous bound to the soil than tritium in the water supply, but a numerical factor expressing those relative dangers would be extremely useful.
The radiation health community has a responsibility to come up with numbers that can be readily comprehended by the general public and interested non-specialists, and I believe they have failed badly at ... allowing simple independent assessments of radiation hazards by a much larger fraction of the population.