Skip to main content

Radiation and Reason – Wade Allison ****

This is an important and useful book – the problem is going to be getting the right people to read it… but I’ll come back to that later. Wade Allison’s message is simple – we’ve got it wrong about nuclear power. We’ve over-reacted to the level of risk posed by low level radiation exposure, and because of that we make nuclear power ridiculously expensive.
The arguments are very powerful. All the evidence is from the aftermath of large exposures like the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, or from the impact of long term, low level exposure that we have historically vastly overestimated the impact of a dose of radiation on the human body. Allison is not arguing that large doses aren’t dangerous, but that they have to be larger than we used to think to do permanent damage.
A key confusing factor is the way that dosage is assumed to operate in a linear fashion, with the risk increasing steadily as the dose increases. This means you can do easy sums, adding up the dose across a population and getting to a combined risk. However, all the evidence is that the body’s response to radiation is non-linear. Below a threshold it has no noticeable impact. Above this, the impact rises quickly, until it flattens out at certain death – it’s an S shaped curve, not a straight line. This means we should take a totally different attitude to the risks involved.
Similarly, Allison demolishes the myths that nuclear power stations have to be vastly expensive to decommission – or that the storage of nuclear waste is incredibly dangerous. He’s not arguing for a permanent dependence on nuclear fission, but rather that we should make the best use of it while we’re waiting for fusion reactors to be possible – but either way it’s a lot better for the environment than coal, oil or gas fired power stations.
The arguments, then, are very effective. The book has one or two issues. It comments on how we need to educate people to get over the fictional idea of level of risk that the fear of radiation and atomic bombs generated. Yet this book certainly isn’t the way to do it. For example, early on it uses the argument that a 0.1% risk of fatality is the equivalent of a reduction in life expectancy of 2 weeks. This may be true, but it’s impossible for most people to accept as an equation. The mind just doesn’t work like that, and you have to tailor the message to fit what can be taken in.
Allison does have some good human touches. He compares our attitude to nuclear power to the attitude of the masses to Quasimodo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame – they are repelled by his ugliness and strength and don’t see his value. Fear gets in the way. I also like the very apt observation that people treat the sun’s radiation totally differently to radiation from nuclear sources, even though it too carries risk. (I always found it hilarious that the anti-nuclear brigade used to have a badge showing a smiling sun saying ‘Nuclear Power? No thanks! – given that the sun is the biggest nuclear reactor for light years around.) But on the whole the book comes across rather more as a polemic or a university lecture than true popular science. There’s not enough context/people content, and given the message that we need to educate ordinary folk about getting the level of risk wrong, it doesn’t really have enough of an appeal to the general reader.
One other slightly off-putting aspect of the book is that it is self-published. It is well proof read and reasonably well laid out, but I knew it was self-published without looking at the copyright page – it just has that feel. The print is a touch too big and the paragraphs aren’t laid out like a normal published book. Of itself this shouldn’t be a problem – Allison is not some nutcase, expounding his off-the-wall ideas, he’s an Oxford professor – but it does slightly reduce the credibility of the source.
In the end, no one who is against nuclear power is going to read this book. That would be too much to expect. But it is a very useful book for those who are in favour of nuclear power to read, to get arguments to support their position – or for those who are sitting on the fence. We currently take a wholly irrational approach to nuclear power, and it’s time we approached it more sensibly. And for that, I have to applaud Radiation and Reason.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…