What if we told you that right now, as you read this, you are being bathed in several kinds of radiation? Then what if we were to say turning off your computer would only stop some of it? Well imagine no more, that's what we're saying.

Radiation comes in two varieties (particles and waves)

Blue light, called Cherenkov Radiation, is caused by particles of ionizing radiation moving faster than the speed of light in water.

Three bands of electromagnetic radiation, only one of these is ionizing but two can kill you.

Just The Facts

  1. Radiation is why people fear nuclear power plants and nuclear fallout. It's properly called ionizing radiation, but we'll be calling it radiation from here on.
  2. This kind can, among other things, help doctors diagnose problems in your body, give you a sun tan, and straight up kill your ass.
  3. You usually can't see ionizing radiation itself, but sometimes what it's doing can be seen.
  4. Exactly like the second image up there: Beta particles are invisble to our eyes, but when they go through water faster than the speed of light a blue glow called Cherenkov Radiation is created.
  5. In other words, the blue glow is harmless, and pretty, but it's caused by dangerous radiation you can't see. The water also keeps the dangerous radiation from harming the dude that took this picture.

Types and Terms

What do you think of when you hear or read the word radiation? Danger right? It's probably not a coincidence that when we did a Google image search the first image we got was a symbol like this:

The Nuclear Trefoil kinda looks like a Trivial Pursuit game piece with three pies filled in.

The trefoil warns us about a type called ionizing radiation, because it strips electrons from atoms which changes them into ions. This can mean bad things if they're atoms in your body and it happens to enough of them. Ionizing radiation consists of:

Ultraviolet light - If you enjoy getting a tan or have known the displeasure of receiving a sun burn, this is the cause of both. It also causes cataracts, yellowing of your cornea, some plastics to break down and kills most bacteria. UV radiation goes by other names too, like black light and causes some things to fluoresce when exposed to it. Like posters, your teeth, or some tattoos. They aren't strong enough to get through your skin but can totally wreck it and even cause cancer.

What do these people have in common? Various degrees of skin damage caused by exposure to ionizing radiation and nipples.

X-rays - Go right through even the thickest skin, but usually not bone. Unlike candy-ass UV light, x-rays can cause damage to any body part. Discovered in 1895 by a guy named Roentgen, pronounced sort of like a combination of raunt from restaraunt and guin from guinea, raunt-guin. Wilhem Conrad Roentgen happened to notice barium platinocyanide* paint was fluorescing after he activated a vacuum tube nearby. Long story short, he won a Nobel Prize after getting his wife to hold her hand between a source of what he called x-rays and a piece of film to show people what her bones looked like:

Left, the first x-ray: Hand mit Ringen (Hand with ring)
Right, a more recent x-ray: Hand mit Fraktur und Metallschrauben (Hand with fracture and metal screws)

Gamma rays - You've probably heard of gamma rays, maybe from comic books, as the kind of thing that causes people like Bruce Banner to change into the Hulk. That's sort of true, gamma radiation is mutagenic but since it's also a carcinogen, it's just as, if not more likely to cause cancer than Bruce Banner becoming the Hulk. If Banner were real and exposed to actual gamma rays the way it's shown - he'd of died, a lot.

Gamma rays and x-rays are actually very similar, for example some gamma rays can be used for scanning. There are even cameras to capture images of gamma radiation, fittingly called gamma cameras. The main difference is how and where each type is created, both come from different parts of an atom: X-rays originate from electrons while gamma rays come from the nucleus.

Alpha particles - One of these is just a helium nucleus without any electrons, aka an ion, as such it'll get some from the environment. Anything encountered on Earth emitting alpha particles is harmless, unless you get some inside your body or in a wound. Why aren't they dangerous anywhere else? Because they don't have enough energy to go through the top layers of your skin, which itself is actually tough to damage with such radiation.

Your innards, on the other hand, are not tough at all and will be destroyed. As rogue helium nuclei smash into cells they steal electrons too. Remember that Russian guy who died of radiation sickness a few years ago? He ate or drank something that was emitting alpha particles, probably ground up static eliminator parts.

You shouldn't get the wrong idea though, these particles can't even make it through a couple of inches worth of air. That's right, three inches of plain old, ordinary air will shield you from alpha particles. That's why some isotopes that emit them are used in static eliminators, the alpha particles grab free electrons which would otherwise cause static cling. They're safe so long as they have a handle longer than three inches and are not eaten.

Beta particles - Free electrons or sometimes positrons. Beta particles emitted from stuff that's radioactive are slightly more penetrating than alpha particles. They still won't make it through your skin, but may penetrate a whole six or so inches into the air, and will totally fuck your shit up if you eat something giving a lot of them off. There are other sources of beta particles, which can ruin your next few months and leave you with a wicked scar or a visit from Mr. Dead:

Accelerated beta particles did this incredibly slow acting damage. You only encounter this special variety from either supernovae or man-made stuff like cathode ray tubes and other particle accelerators. Lucky for both this guy and our NSFW policy, the beam didn't hit him a foot lower. (And to think, we figured there was no possible use for the random nut brush.)

Neutrons - Some sources consider these to be ionizing, but not directly. They combine with normally stable elements to create radioactive isotopes. For example lets say we fired a beam of neutrons at a balloon filled with hydrogen. Some of it will become deuterium after absorbing one of the neutrons. If the neutron flux is high enough, some of this will absorb yet another neutron to become tritium (T or 3H) which is radioactive.

*Platinocyanide: A salt made of platinum and cyanide. Probably not the kind of salt you'd want on french fries or a margarita.

Terms you'll hear mentioned

Isotope: Variations of elements with more or less neutrons, that generally work the same for chemical reactions. For example hydrogen usually has no neutrons and one proton (1H or H). Add one neutron to get the isotope deuterium (2H or D), and another to make the isotope tritium (3H or T). Mix two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen to make water (H2O): Replace the hydrogen with deuterium and heavy water is the result (D2O). Mix one regular hydrogen atom with a deuterium atom and oxygen to get deuterated water (HDO). Heavy or deuterated water look, act, and even taste almost exactly like water except the added neutrons make it heavier and slightly more viscous.

Radioactive: Unstable isotopes will emit ionizing radiation to become stable, this is called radioactive decay. Like anything which needs stability, unstable isotopes can't stay that way forever. After a period of time the unstable isotope will decay into a lighter isotope, most likely of a different element. Just how much time elapses before the decay is measured in terms of halflife.

Not this kind.

Halflife: It's a deceptive word for how long it takes half the unstable isotopes in something to decay. Here's the deceptive part; Say you had 100 atoms of an unstable isotope, with a halflife of one second. After one second you have 50 atoms left and you'd think, after another there would be zero. After all, 50 is half of 100, so the other half represents a "fulllife" or something.

Sorry to say that's not what happens, half of the 50 will decay, leaving you with 25. Numbers start getting fuzzy when things stop splitting so neatly, the next second may find you with twelve or thirteen atoms. There can be no remainder when dividing by radioactive decay. Below you'll find an example of how this works:

Generally isotopes with a short halflife, like say eight days, tend to be more dangerous because they're constantly emitting tons of radiation. Put a sample of this stuff next to an equal amount of something else, with a halflife of 30,000 years and when they finish decaying both will probably have emitted similar amounts of radiation. Of course by the time 30,000 years pass, the first sample will have expended all of its energy, while the second still has another 30,000 years to go before half of what's left decays. Then another for half of the half, etc.

Assuming they were both about the size of a bowling ball; Let's say we had given each sample to a different person which they must carry for the rest of their lives, in exchange for an obscene amount of money. The first poor bastard would be carrying around a bowling ball hot enough to boil water and maybe even melt itself into a hot puddle of metallic broth. While the second would notice that their ball just seemed to be warm all the time. Aside from that we could expect both participants to die before their balls finished one halflife. Victim number 1 having received a fatal dose of ionizing radiation within a few minutes, in addition to the temperature difficulties, means within eight days one would have enough to die many times over. The second having expired of natural causes, well before the sample could even come close to harming him/her, since nobody lives 30,000 years.

Visual aid on isotopes and radioactivity.

Electromagnetic Radiation: Self propagating energy waves at various wavelengths, making up the electromagnetic spectrum. Divided into bands based on wavelength, from longest to shortest: Radio waves, microwaves, infra red, and visible light make up the non-ionizing portion.

Fallout: When a nuclear weapon detonates the whole thing is vaporized, literally. For a little while you can actually find uranium, plutonium, aluminum, and several others as gases in the air. As these molecules cool off a bit, they undergo a process called deposition and go straight from gas to a solid aerosol, kinda like hairspray. These tiny chunks tend to combine with water, and fall with the rain. Did we mention they're radioactive? Yeah, that's why fallout sucks.

Radiation Q & A

What happens when someone is exposed to lots of ionizing radiation?

If you're exposed to too much ionizing radiation, death and/or cancer are very likely outcomes. This you probably knew already, but how much is too much? Well it just so happens they have a scale for determining what "too much" means. It's actually both the amount of radiation you're exposed to and how long it took to get that dose. You may have heard terms like rads or grays used to describe dosage amounts. They convert fairly easily, 1 gray equals 100 rads. If you and a room full of friends get these amounts, in less than a minute, expect:

  • Less than 1 Gy = No problems
  • 1 - 2 Gy = Chances of nausea and headache within two to six hours of exposure are about 50%. Everyone should survive, assuming they don't have pre-existing problems like HIV or leukemia. If so they better also have the Mayo clinic with them, because ionzing radiation is hard on our blood and immune system.
  • 3 - 5 Gy = Many will be sick within 1 - 2 hours, lasting a few hours, then expect at least 7 but up to 28 days of good health (latent period) before your blood gets messed up and your hair starts falling out. Most will likely survive with medical intervention, again assuming they were healthy before.
  • 6 - 8 Gy = Most will be sick in under an hour, latent closer to 7 days, then diarrhea, fever, and bleeding. Probably going to be fatal, but not necessarily beyond any hope of survival.
  • 9 - 30 Gy = Everybody will be sick from between five and thirty minutes, there will be no latent period, and if your dose is closer to 30 Gy, chances are you'll be dead the same day. We don't generally recommend suicide because there are almost always better options, except in cases like this. Unless you're dying to know what it would feel like if your DNA suddenly stopped copying itself properly, consider suicide as soon as possible. Soon you will no longer be able to do anything but bleed, shit, puke, and piss.
  • 30+ Gy = You won't have time for suicide, radiation is pretty much melting your brain where you stand. That's not all it's doing to you, but without a brain everything else is just meat. Getting this much radiation is difficult to do on Earth, unless you have a habit standing in front of operating particle accelerators.

Radiation can be dangerous, just like electricity, fire, meeting someone online, or falling over after taking a late night piss. Poster Source

Hard to imagine anything worse than getting cancer from invisible energy waves, you can't directly perceive? Picture these: Jumping into a roughly 200° F) hot spring, getting pulled through an industrial woodchipper, or being sucked up a 17.5" pipe, among other things. These hazards aren't nearly as exotic as radiation, but we live with them and many others which are more common and dangerous than anything related to this subject.

Did someone actually go all the way through a woodchipper and get sucked up a pipe less than two feet around?

Not the same person of course, but yes that really happened to two very unlucky individuals. A close analog to death from acute radiation sickness is what happened to the first guy we mentioned, who dove into scalding hot water. Seems his friend's dog jumped into the Celestine Pool in Yellowstone, it's a hot spring. Knowing the dog would be cooked, and not thinking any further, he dove in after it. He was only in the water like a minute or so. That was long enough to blind him, cover 100% of his body in third degree burns, and get his ticket off the planet punched less than 24 hours later. So far the fastest people have died after a lethal dose is a couple of days, even that's kinda fast too. We weren't kidding about how hard it is to get a dose of instant death on Earth, in space, all bets are off.

Hotter than it looks.

Isn't that what killed most of the people in Nagasaki and Hiroshima? Ionizing radiation.

Not really, there are other radiation effects that come with a nuclear explosion. For example infrared radiation (IR). It's the radiation hot lamps emit to keep french fries warm and the wavelength which Predator primarily viewed the world. IR is not ionizing, so you won't get radiation sickeness, but enough of it can roast your ass. Literally.

If Predator decided to send his/her/its juvenile offspring to pray on people out deer hunting, he/she/it should recognize this as man bait. Note how the eyes and mouth are the hottest parts, this is why most mammals are furry: Fur keeps the heat in. Oh yeah, for readers not used to the metric system: 0° C is 32° F and 30° C is 86° F

Wait, why?

Because it's heat, radiant heat. See this guy? Notice how his forehead and chest are unblemished, yet his face and neck are sporting some burns. Yeah, he was a little over a mile away when one of the bombs went off. At the time he had a hat on, his shirt was buttoned up, and he was facing the blast, which is why some areas were and were not burned.

Looks like he fell asleep in the sun, which he sorta did, radiant heat from the fireball would've made it feel like the sun was about a mile away for less than a second. This isn't just a sunburn though, it's what happens when you're exposed to too much heat, but no fire, also known as a flash burn.

Right after Japan surrendered, one of the first things the US did was send people to both cities. The scientists wanted to know how their bombs worked in practice. They met a bunch of people, talked to surviving doctors and probably had sake flavored with piss from their thankful hosts. They figured that the fatalities fell into three catagories and assigned percentages thusly:

  • Radiation sickness: 15 - 20%
  • Flash burns: 20 - 30%
  • Other injuries: 50 - 60%

Pictured: Cause of other injuries, overpressure and flying pieces of whatever's around. This house was just over a kilometer (3500 feet) away from a 16 kiloton test.

Most fatalities were caused by the blast and debris ranging in size from splinters to buildings. A surprising number were killed by glass shards, until you remember safety glass hadn't been invented yet. Also many who survived the blast later died because doctors, medical supplies and food were in short sup,

Don't give me that a-bomb apologist shit, people did die of radiation poisoning. A lot of them.

We're getting to that, geez, but look, a large percentage of people were killed by the freaking explosion and heat. Then in Hiroshima, there was a firestorm, which killed quite a few too. To actually get a fatal dose of ionizing radiation from the burst itself, a person had to be close enough that he/she was probably carbonized and/or blown apart before having time to notice. Note the word probably, some concrete framed structures less than 1000' from ground zero actually stayed standing, with noticable changes. Survivors inside would have received a lethal dosage of gamma radiation, assuming a lethal dosage of flying glass and debris wasn't absorbed first.

Almost all the folks killed by ionizing radiation got their doses after the explosion, from various sources, most of which traced back to the bombs.

Two questions: One, how does radiation happen after the explosion? Two, what the hell do you mean "most" radiation can be traced back to the bombs?!

Since the second includes an exclamation point we'll address it first: You'll find ionizing radiation everywhere, UV light from the sun, radon decaying in your house, and in many smoke detectors.

That's a load of crap, there must be radiation free places. What about fallout shelters or really deep caves?

We didn't say it's everywhere, we said you will find it everywhere and that's because your body is radioactive.

I'm not radioactive, you are!

We're all radioactive, when we say "you" we mean you as a human, and guess what? Humans can't live without what causes us to be radioactive: Isotopes of potassium (K) and carbon (C) abbreviated 40K and 14C respectively. Yep, no matter where you go there will always be ionizing radiation, if not in the environment then definitely in you.

I don't need potassium, I just eat bananas. I also don't eat carbon, that's for sure.

Uhm, yeah not only do you eat carbon, you're alive because of it. Also, bananas have potassium in them, you don't take potassium to get a dose of banana. Listen, don't go trying to cut potassium out of your diet, you'll be miserable until you die or are taken for a blood test and eventually some Nu-salt mixed with water. It'd be kinda like skipping vitamin c, only instead of scurvy you'll get hypokalemia.

Besides, before you could eat enough potassium to even start worrying about radiation poisoning, the potassium itself will cause your heart to stop beating properly and then just stop. We're not gonna warn you about cutting carbon from your life, because you're a carbon based lifeform.

Which leads us back to your first question, how one receives fatal doses of radiation after the blast. Have a look at this:

It's fallout combined with water that came down as black rain after the explosion. People had no idea how dangerous this shit was. Not to be confused with the 1989 Michael Douglas movie of the same title whose conclusion is pictured below:

Like we said, there is a big burst of ionizing radiation during the explosion, but the heat and explosion mean most people fatally exposed will be killed by the latter two. The real danger of radiation poisoning comes from fallout.

Oh yeah? What about Chernobyl, they said there wasn't a nuclear explosion, but radioactive poison ended up all over Europe. How do you explain that?

It came from the smoke of burning radioactive graphite, which is kinda like fallout that was heated in the meltdown.

Meltdown? I thought it was just a steam explosion.

It started out that way, but the water which became steam had been cooling the nuclear fuel elements. Steam doesn't really cool nearly as well as water, but it's especially useless after escaping from both the coolant loop and building entirely. When something like this happens, the fuel elements become so hot that they melt into a substance with a consistancy like lava.

Nuclear lava, called corium, after cooling and solidifacation, under reactor # 4 at Chernobyl.

The steam blew reactor #4's 1000 ton containment lid through the roof. Also inside the reactor were blocks of graphite, used to help fission, which were almost white hot after this and ignited upon contact with oxygen. The smoke from this fire spread the contamination far and wide, but wasn't nearly as bad as that experienced near the reactor. This is to be expected when the insides of a nuclear reactor are randomly scattered across the countryside. That's why Western reactors are kept inside huge sealed structures, built of steel reinforced concrete, several feet thick.

That's also why the meltdown at Three Mile Island turned out not to be a huge public safety threat. The nuclear lava failed to even escape from the reactor vessel (big steel container that holds the reactor), but if it had there was nowhere for it to go because the containment building is designed to permanently store a melted reactor. If the Soviets had built their reactors in the same kind of building they could've literally kept the lid on Chernobyl. Instead they decided a "containment building" was just the where the reactor lives that only needed to keep the weather out. They had to build a real containment building after the accident, which was so much harder than it would've been if they'd built it first. Hindsight's 20/20 we guess.

Oak Ridge Associated Universities Health Physics Historical Instrumentation Museum Collection.

Radioactive Snake Oil

Did you know when ionizing radiation was first discovered it was touted as a cure all medicine? While it can kill cancer, ionizing radiation can also cause it if used incorrectly. Like this:

Both of these were invented by William J. Bailey, a man who was sure radiation would make men immortal. At left, Radithor was exactly what it described on the bottle: Radioactive water, standard H2O, with radium and thorium mixed in (RADIum THORium, get it?). To the right, a Radiendocrinator which also had radium in it, but not for drinking: This thing went under a man's scrotum at night. At a mere $150, in 1930, the whole Great Depression thing kinda kept most regular guys from owning one. Little did they know that even the common man could have this benefit, a bottle of Radithor was much cheaper, and it would probably fit just as well under a scrotum. If you want to up your chances of testicular cancer, they'd both work just fine. Unless you're a chick, but fear not, both products could give women cancer too.

People started to think that these products might be kinda dangerous, especially when a headline on the Wall Street Journal proclaimed: The Radium Water Worked Fine until His Jaw Came Off. This came after a rich guy, who'd been drinking a lot of Radithor, died from it. You see, once upon a time there was a guy named Eben Byers who was a well known industrialist, athlete, socialite and also a douchebag. Seems he fell out of his bunk, on a train he and some friends chartered, for the 1927 Yale-Harvard football game. The poor guy hurt his arm, and during the course of being treated, the doctor turned him on to Radithor. He loved the stuff, drinking several bottles a day and it killed him.

Don't get the idea that William J. Bailey was necessarily trying to kill people with his product, we don't really know what the hell he was doing. He probably did believe in it and drank Radithor himself, which is why he died of bladder cancer. If not, wow, it seems kind of ironic a guy who made money on selling radioactive water he didn't drink, would die of bladder cancer.

Better that than this:

Above: One route, taken in 15 steps, to becoming a sexual tyrannosaur circa 1930. A 15 day course of radium suppositories, which are shoved up one's ass. If you've ever had medication administered that way, you know the suppositories are usually kept in a fridge- because it feels like someone is shoving a cold lump of caramel up your hershey highway. Radium, being so radiocactive it's name means the Greek word for radiation, is quite warm. So the silver lining is they must've gone dow up a tad more comfortably, temperature wise.