Random Acts of Science Communication And Learning #RASCAL 1 – radiation

Recently, myself and some of the other denizens of the wonderfully argumentative and, er, robust Bad Science Forums have decided to get a bit active in our grumbles about the poor science understanding and communication we see in society, and especially the media. We have decided to descend on the capital and #RASCAL.

The idea was initially prompted by the reporting of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, following the tsunami. We found that it was really very difficult to find any information that was reliable, clearly sourced or even internally consistent. Statements about how many multiples of normal radiation there was were common, but with no saying where these measurements were taken, or what that dose meant. A hundred times normal level sounds pretty scary to me as a layman, but in terms of the danger associated with, say, an hour long dose of that? I hadn’t a clue.

Probably the best single resource in terms of clearly explaining the scale of radiation doses that we saw doing the rounds was from the ever excellent XKCD. The clarity of this inspired us to have a go at designing something similarly informative and clear, and take it into a public place. You don’t get a great deal more public than Speakers Corner in the lovely Hyde Park, London.

@le_joel was tasked with tasked with gathering, mining, arranging and soothing the nerves of the data. @Suw organised artistic supplies, including a range of chalk and some string. @mjg_ brought along a rather swanky camera. I had, as ever, stupid shoes and too much enthusiasm. There were a couple of others with us, but they shall remain nameless, mostly because they don’t Twitter or otherwise socially network, and I haven’t asked if it’s OK to mention them.

We used a few sources, particularly the XKCD data and a chart by Information is Beautiful. We compiled the data, and tried to figure out how best to present it.

We drew out a section marked out by the meter along the cycle path just off speakers corner, and put in different facts at the relevant distance. The scale was one meter to one Seivert. We realised pretty quickly why you generally see logarithmic scales, where scales go up in multiples of ten rather than uniformly. This means that the scale, had we gone up logarithmically, would have had the dose represented by two metres as ten times bigger than the dose at one metre. Three metres would be ten times bigger again.

Our final scale looked something like this video and these photos from @mjg_, and photos from @Suw here (#RASCAL 1 starts about halfway along,  with #RASCAL 2 before it).

Although realistically there aren’t going to be any decisions made about the next generation of nuclear power stations based on our drawings, and the media will continue to associate any use of the word nuclear with Chernobyl, I think we did something interesting, fun and hopefully accurate. People were happy to stop and talk to us, and were often really interested to know more. In our little way, we did some effective Random Acts of Science Communication And Learning.

And more will follow…

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