Radiation is a hard-working word in physics. It describes several
diverse natural processes and their effects. As used in common
speech, it means what physicists call "ionizing radiation", or that
which can produce detrimental effects in materials and organic
tissue. Ionization is the process of removing electrons from atoms,
and when this occurs in biological tissues it disrupts the delicate
chemical and physical processes that sustain life. This can happen
through mutation, when the DNA of the organism is altered, or directly
via the destruction of atomic bonds and the breakup of important
molecules at the site of the ionization.
We consider two broad categories of ionizing radiation: that
caused by electromagnetic rays, and that caused by high-energy charged
The electromagnetic spectrum is familiar to most people. What we call
"light" is really a narrow band in a single phenomenon which includes
radio waves, microwaves, and x-rays. A wave's position in the
spectrum depends on its wavelength, the distance between two adjacent
"crests" of the wave (Fig. 1). On the left are "long" waves such as
radio, television, microwave, and infrared. On the right are "short"
or "high frequency" waves such as x-rays and gamma rays.
Fig. 1 - Wavelength is the distance from crest to
crest. In the visible spectrum, red light has a longer
wavelength than blue light. Short wavelengths correspond to
higher frequencies. The higher the frequency, the greater
the ionizing effect.
As you can see, not all electromagnetic (EM) waves are ionizing
radiation. Generally anything above the visible spectrum is
considered ionizing radiation and thus harmful to some degree.
Ultraviolet radiation from the sun is what sometimes causes skin
cancer. X-rays and gamma rays are produced by nuclear reactions --
atomic bombs, and to a much lesser degree, nuclear reactors.
Non-ionizing EM radiation can still be dangerous, of course, in
sufficient quantities. Microwaves cook food by exciting the water
molecules in the food until they vibrate and create heat. Obviously they can also excite the
water molecules in the human body and cause a similar effect.
The other category of ionizing radiation comprises high-energy
An alpha particle is the nucleus of a helium atom, composed of two
protons and two neutrons. It has a charge of +2 and is very large and
A beta particle is an electron emitted from the nucleus of a
radioactive substance. It has a charge of -1 and is much, much less
massive than a proton or a neutron.
A proton is, well, a proton. And neutrons are neutrons. Protons
and neutrons have about the same mass, but the neutron doesn't have a
charge while the proton has a charge of +1.
Now having made a careful distinction between waves and particles,
we note that many authors use the terms interchangeably (e.g., beta
ray and beta particle). Since EM radiation is carried by the photon
(a particle) and since equivalent energies can be computed for proper
particles, there isn't any real need to maintain such a strict
distinction. In fact, it's frequently useful to be able to share
measurements between all the different kinds of radiation.
But when computing radiation dosage (the effect of radiation on
organisms) and when constructing shielding, the differences must be
clearly understood. Pound for pound, particle radiation is much more
dangerous than wave radiation. The bigger the particle, the more
damage it is capable of doing.
We mentioned above that physicists deal with radiation in a more
abstract concept. In their terminology, it is one of the mechanisms
by which energy is transferred from one place to another. Radiation
is "energy in transit". When we speak of the "energy" of a wave we
consider its intensity. The energy of a particle can be thought of as
equivalent to its speed. High-energy particles travel very fast,
while low-energy particles travel slowly.
Physicists use another measurement, "flux", to describe a sort of
particle density. If many particles pass by a certain point in a
given length of time, we say the flux is high. If few particles pass,
the flux is low. "Flux" is the Latin word for "flow".
If we take a cubic meter of space anywhere in the universe, we'll
discover that it contains many particles of varying flux and energy.
In general, flux and energy vary inversely. That means the higher the
energy, the lower the flux. So if we look at the low-energy
particles, we may find an enormous flux.
WHERE RADIATION COMES
We can answer this question in two ways. We can say that charged
particles come from the nuclei of various atoms that undergo nuclear
decay. We can say that EM rays (especially x-rays and gamma rays) are
emitted from those same nuclei, and we can note that any substance
with sufficient energy, or heat, emits EM
radiation as a method of releasing that energy. That describes the
source of radiation at the microscopice level.
But the pressing issue is where in the universe we might expect to
encounter these types of radiation, and in what quantities. The short
answer is that radiation is all around us. EM radiation bombards us
constantly, but thankfully not generally in the ionizing range of
wavelengths. High-energy charged particles rain down on us from
space, and are produced by the natural radioactive decay of many
natural substances. The constant low level radiation which we
encounter every day is "background radiation".
Predictably, the chief source of all kinds of radiation in space
is the sun. A full spectrum of EM waves radiates outward from it.
Charged particles of all types emanate from it, especially during
periods of extreme solar activity (e.g.,
Earth's atmosphere protects us from most ionizing electromagnetic
radiation from the sun. Ultraviolet, x-ray, and gamma rays penetrate
to some extent (enough to give us sunburns, for example), but in space
there is a consistently higher level of all of these. But only during
periods of extreme solar activity does this radiation exceed our
ability to shield against it.
Alpha and beta particles and protons carry electromagnetic charges,
making them susceptible to magnetic fields. The earth's magnetic
field deflects the flow of these particles from the sun. But it also
causes them to collect in two large regions of space surrounding the
earth -- the Van Allen belts. We are reasonably safe inside the Van
Allen belts. And as long as the sun remains reasonably quiet, we are
even safe outside them.
Fig. 2 - This cutaway model of the Van Allen belts
shows the small inner belt and the large outer belt, and the
crescent shape of each belt's cross section. (NASA Johnson Space
But when the sun acts up, the area outside the Van Allen belts
becomes thick (i.e., high flux) with dangerous, high-energy charged
particles. A solar event was depicted in the
motion picture Red Planet, forcing the crew of that mission to
But since the Van Allen belts themselves contain concentrations of
charged particles, going through them presents its own hazard. We can
think of it as crossing a barbed-wire fence: the fence offers
protection, but can also snag us as we crawl through it.
We've left neutrons out of the picture up until now, and that's
because they just don't occur as high-energy particles anywhere
in the universe in numbers great enough to care about. Scientists
even have trouble creating them in the lab.
HOW TO SHIELD AGAINST
This is where the difference between radiation types becomes
important. Wave radiation requires thick, heavy shielding. It
requires considerably less material to block particles.
In general, the shorter the EM wavelength, the thicker and denser the
shield material must be. Ultraviolet (UV) can be blocked simply by a
sufficiently opaque sheet of plastic. We are all familiar with tinted
sunglasses that promise to block some 97% of solar UV rays. Not much
additional protection is required in space. X-rays and gamma rays are
another matter. Where intense x-rays and gamma rays occur, it
requires several inches or centimeters of lead and/or concrete to
provide adequate shielding.
Alpha particles are very large particles. As such they don't
penetrate very deeply into many things. In fact, alpha particles will
not even penetrate the epidermal (dead) layer of skin, and so present
no special hazard to humans. A sheet of reasonably thick paper will
block all alpha particles.
Protons penetrate farther. They can be shielded by light metals
or plastics in thicknesses of about a centimeter.
Beta particles are very small and can penetrate centimeters into
the body. But luckily they're too small to cause much damage if they
hit anything. But there's a special problem here. When beta
particles hit large atoms, the impact causes those atoms to give off
x-rays. Metal atoms are usually quite heavy, and so are especially
susceptible to this kind of re-radiation which is known by its German
name "Bremsstrahlung". In fact, this is how x-rays are produced
intentionally for medical applications.
The best materials to shield against beta particles have lots of
hydrogen atoms in them. Hydrogen atoms are light, and so absorb the
particles without giving off x-rays. Plain old water works very
well. In fact, 4 inches (10 centimeters) of water will block almost
all background beta particles. But water is impractical for shielding
in space, so high-density polyethylene (HPDE, chemical formula
CH2CH2...) is frequently used instead. This
also effectively blocks protons.
AN ALTERNATIVE TO
Radiation exposure is cumulative, meaning that the longer you're
exposed to it, the worse effect it has. It's very much like running
through the rain. We've discussed shielding, which is like an
umbrella. But if it's impractical to provide complete shielding, you
can also reduce the exposure time. This is the same as running
through the rain rather than walking.
If you forget your umbrella on a rainy day and have to park some
distance from your destination, you can reduce your "exposure" to the
rain by running from the car to the door. If you walk instead, you'll
spend more time under the rain and thus get wetter.
Organisms can recover from exposure to radiation, just as you can
eventually dry after walking or running through the rain. The wetter
you get, the longer it takes to dry. The more exposure to radiation,
the harder it is to recover. The body will repair damage done to DNA
or to other important molecules, although it will be sick in the
meantime. It's actually better to absorb a high dose of radiation
quickly than a low dose over a long period. Although the higher dose
may cause more problems in the short term, the low dose will produce
continuing damage and your body simply may not be able to keep up even
though the damage is slight at any one moment.
When it comes to designing space ships, additional shielding means
additional weight, and that means your space ship may have to go slower.
The answer to this tradeoff is to skimp on shielding and go faster.
The radiation exposure will be more intense, but it will not last as
long. This is preferred.
HOW TO MEASURE
Most people aren't familiar with the various units and concepts
used to measure radiation. It just isn't something they have to deal
with. And so when conspiracists describe radiation using big numbers
they find in textbooks and elsewhere, the general public isn't always
equipped to understand what those numbers mean.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Americans have one
system of units for measuring things, and the rest of the world has
another system. This is also true for radiation. So not only do
people have to deal with labels they've never seen before, but they
don't know what measurements are simply differences in units, a sort
of radiological furlong versus a radiological centimeter.
We measure two general phenomena when we discuss radiation. We
measure "activity" and "exposure". Activity is basically just how
much radiation is coming out of something, whether it's particles or
waves. Exposure is the important factor. It measures the effect of
radiation on substances that absorb it.
Comparison of Radiation Terms
Amount of radioactivity produced by a given amount of a
1 Ci = 37 billion Bq
1 Bq = 1 particle emission per second
Amount of radiation required to deposit a certain amount of
energy in some substance.
1 Gy = 100 rad
1 rad = 100 erg/g
Amount of radiation required to deposit a certain amount of
energy in human tissue.
rem = rad × Q
1 Sv = 100 rem
Amount of radiation required to ionize a mass of air to a
1 R = 0.93 rad
Radiation activity is measured in an American unit called a
"Curie" (Ci) or an international (SI) unit called a "Becquerel". The
Curie is defined by how much radiation one gram of a radium isotope
emits. The Becquerel just counts how many particles or photons (in
the case of wave radiation) are emitted per second. The device used
for measurement is often the familiar Geiger counter. If you put a
Geiger counter over a gram of substance and count 3 clicks per second,
the radioactivity of that substance would be 3 Bq.
Radiation exposure is measured in American units by the "rad", an
acronym standing for "radiation absorbed dose",
and in the SI system by the Gray (Gy). The exposure is the amount of
energy "deposited" in a substance by radiation. A rad is the amount
of radiation required to deposit 100 ergs of energy in a gram of
material. An erg is a very small amount of energy, but it takes only
a very small amount of energy to ionize an atom. The number isn't
important. The important concept is that exposure is measured
by what radiation does to substances, not anything particular about
the radiation itself. This allows us to unify the measurement of
different types of radiation (i.e., particles and wave) by measuring
what they do to materials.
But what materials? Wood, water, human tissue -- they all have
different densities, so a gram of one material may be bigger or
smaller than a gram of another material. And the bigger something is,
the more surface area is available for bombardment by rays or
particles. It would be nice if there were some way of comparing
exposure in various substances directly.
Enter the "rem". That's another acronym, meaning
"radiation equivalent, man". As with all
measurements of exposure it describes the effects of radiation on
substances that absorb it, but in this case the substance is
specifically human tissue. It's an American unit; the corresponding
SI unit is the Sievert (Sv).
The reader is likely to encounter the term "Roentgen", which is
another American unit of exposure. It measures the amount of
ionization a certain amount of radiation produces in air, and has been
largely abandoned in favor of the rad. It can be roughly equated to a
rad for estimation purposes.
Above we discussed that different kinds of radiation are
inherently more dangerous than others. By measuring exposure in how
it affects surfaces, we can largely ignore the differences in kinds of
radiation. But in order to compute rems from rads we need to take into
account that some kinds of radiation are inherently more dangerous to
biological tissue, even if their "energy deposition" levels are the
same. Each kind of radiation carries a "relative biological
effectiveness" (RBE) factor, also called a "quality factor" (Q).
For x-rays and gamma rays and electrons absorbed by human tissue,
Q is 1. For alpha particles it is 20. For protons and neutrons, it
is 10. To compute rems from rads, or Sieverts from Grays, simply
multiply by Q. This is obviously a simplification. The RBE/Q factor
approximates what otherwise would be very complicated computations.
And so the values for Q change periodically as new research refines
Exposure occurs over time, of course. The more rems absorbed in a
unit of time, the more intense the exposure. And so we express actual
exposure as an amount over a specific time period, such as 100 rads
per hour, or 5 millisieverts per year. This is called the "dosage
rate", and is proportional to the flux of radiation in a particular
HOW MUCH IS TOO
Conspiracy theorists exploit the natural radiophobia that has
arisen since the bombing of Japan with nuclear weapons, testing by
various nations, and the Chernobyl accident in the former Soviet
Union. But now that we understand a little bit about how radiation is
measured, we can quantify the danger.
The U.S. government endorses the recommendations of various
international regulatory bodies on the acceptable levels of radiation
exposure in the workplace and among the general public.
If a worker must deal with radioactive materials in the course of
his job, his legal limit is higher: 5 rem (50 millisieverts, mSv) per
year. If a worker is in the vicinity of radioactive materials but
does not work with them, the limit is 0.1 rem (1 mSv). For persons
younger than 18 and pregnant women, the occupational exposure is 0.5
(5 mSv) per year. These are measurements above the natural background
radiation limits, and are measured by dosimeters and other equipment
in the area where the exposure takes place. (Standards for
Protection Against Radiation. 10 CFR § 20.)
People usually get about 0.24 rem (2.4 mSv) in background
radiation per year. (Jawororwski, Zbigniew. "Radiation Risks in the
20th Century: Reality, Illusions, and Risks" Presented 17 Sept. 1998
at the International Curie Conference, Warsaw, Poland.)
The standard for a lethal dose is designated LD 50/30, defined as
the short-term exposure (i.e., over a period of a few hours or less)
which would kill 50% of the human population within 30 days. It's
around 350-400 rems (3.5-4.0 Sv). (Radiation Safety Office.
Radiation Safety Handbook. Columbia University, s.d.)
The occupational dosage allowed by law is 1/700 the lethal
dose for humans.
The limits imposed by U.S. Federal Regulations are thus extremely
conservative. The lethal dose is 700 times the amount of radiation
acceptable per year for people who work around radioactivity. The
regulations are so very strict because while it has been determined
that even dosages up to 30 rems per year produce no visible effect,
there is no such thing as radiation with no harmful effects. It just
happens that for low doses the body can repair itself effectively.