This article is an excerpt from Chapter three in my new book The Chicken Little Agenda – Debunking Experts' Lies. This is the sixth of seven parts for Chapter three that will be presented here sequentially. Read part five here.
The Sun and the Atom: The Only Sources of Electricity
The Pool Table
Before we rack the balls, however, let's take a closer look at the high-energy electron. Early atomic scientists named this type of radiation "beta particles" before they determined that it was only high-energy electrons. The name stuck. As subatomic particles go, the electron has relatively low mass, but it carries a full negative electric charge. Remember the little black and white Scottie terrier magnets from your childhood? When placed nose to nose, they repelled each other. Let's conduct a mind experiment. Imagine a pool table with balls that consist of only the noses of these Scottie terrier magnets. Now place them around the table in any configuration you wish. Once you have this picture firmly in mind, imagine rolling one of these "terrier nose" balls across the table. As it moves through your arrangement, other "terrier nose" balls are repelled in all directions, and these repelled balls further repel other balls. By the time your ball reaches the far side of the table, you will have disrupted most of the balls you originally placed on the table.
This is exactly what happens when a beta particle – a high-energy electron – speeds through matter. It disrupts every electron it passes near, and these in turn disrupt others. An atom containing too few or too many electrons is called an ion, and the process of creating ions is called ionization. A beta particle leaves an ionized trail of damage in its wake.
A helium atom stripped of its electrons is capable of causing significant ionizing damage. Early atomic scientists called this an "alpha particle" before realizing what it actually was – they still use the name. Because an alpha particle has a positive electric charge twice as large as the negative electric charge of an electron, for a given distance of travel it can actually cause significantly more ionizing damage. Fortunately, alpha particles typically have very low energy levels. Almost anything will stop them – skin, a piece of paper, a half-inch of air – almost anything at all. Beta particles are a bit more energetic. They can actually penetrate a centimeter of skin and tissue.
A particular hazard exists when a substance that emits either alpha or beta particles is ingested. In this case, the ionizing damage happens directly in possibly vital organs. Another hazard is created when we try to stop beta particles by using a dense material, such as lead. In the process of slowing down, the beta particles interact with the dense nuclei of the damping material, creating X-rays.
Now we need to step back to high-level electromagnetic energy – gamma-rays and X-rays – which I will refer to collectively as high-energy photons. It turns out that these can cause damage in a more subtle way than we have so far examined. A high-energy photon causes damage when it is absorbed, as we discussed earlier. This happens when it directly strikes an electron or even the nucleus of an atom. When this happens the photon can be completely absorbed or deflected like a billiard ball. When it is absorbed into an atom, the atom may give off one or more secondary particles, most of which can cause ionizing damage. When it is deflected, the deflecting atom still will give off one or more ionizing particles. In some cases, another less energetic photon is also given off, which can start the process all over again.
Now rack the billiard balls on the pool table.
Neutrons carry energy as radiation much like electrons, except that neutrons are much heavier, and so can cause more direct damage for a given speed. Imagine the cue ball on a pool table smashing into the array of racked billiard balls. They scatter everywhere, and whatever structure they once had is lost. Since neutrons have no electric charge, they cannot be deflected by a magnetic field like electrons. But the particles released when a neutron collides with an atom often carry significant energy and leave ionized trails of destruction behind them. So neutrons do double-duty damage, directly like a billiard ball and indirectly like the "terrier nose" balls discussed earlier. As with a cue ball striking the racked array of billiard balls, a neutron loses energy with each collision. If it strikes something particularly heavy, like the edge of the table, it retains most of its energy on the rebound. So the way to slow down energetic neutrons is to surround them with much lighter molecules – water, for example. The neutrons give up their energy to the water and slow down, while the water heats up.
Protons carry energy as radiation much like neutrons, and like neutrons, protons are much heavier than electrons and so can cause more direct damage for a given speed. Protons also carry a positive electric charge, so they can be deflected by a magnetic field like electrons. Protons, too, generate double-duty damage.
There is a host of other radiation types – because there is a host of particles with and without mass that can carry energy away from an atom. From an everyday perspective, however, they are relatively unimportant.
A typical cell measures about fifty microns (one millionth of a meter or one thousandth of a millimeter). Generally speaking, any radiation above the level of mid infrared has the potential to affect a cell. There are other factors, of course. How much energy does it take before something actually begins to happen inside a cell? Depending on the nature of the cell, and upon its ability to withstand external forces, it is possible that electromagnetic energy well into the X-ray range will be needed to have a negative effect on individual cells.
A microwave oven uses tuned electromagnetic energy to heat a cell's water molecules directly, bypassing any size-to-frequency relationship of the cell. You will have observed that microwave oven ha glass door with a perforated metallic mask. The mask allows you to see inside the oven, since the holes are larger than the photons we use to see, but to the microwaves, the mask as a solid barrier, because the holes are less than half the wavelength of the microwaves. We deal with "radiation" every single moment of our lives. It is vital to our existence. Without the sun and its spectrum of radiation, life could not exist. Without the radiative warmth we get from our stoves and furnaces, we would freeze to death. Without the radiation we call radio and television, our lives would be dull and uninteresting.
When radiation is very energetic, however, we must be careful. Sunburn and cataracts are caused by ultraviolet radiation. A hot stove (infrared radiation) can burn. X-rays disrupt cell functions, as can high-energy electrons and neutrons. Alpha and beta particles can be emitted by certain radioactive materials. Alpha particles are not intrinsically dangerous since they cannot penetrate our skin to cause ionizing damage. Beta particles are easily stopped, but they can damage eyes and burn the skin. If ingested, however, so that they come into intimate contact with vital organs, then both alpha and beta particles are extremely dangerous.
By virtue of living on the Earth's surface, we are exposed to ionizing radiation. Literally everything emits some small amount of radiation. In most cases, these levels are so low that they can only be measured with the most sensitive scientific instruments. There are some exceptions, however. Cosmic rays, typically gamma-rays, strike the Earth from every point in space. They originate in the centers of stars, including our own sun. Most cosmic rays are absorbed in the upper atmosphere, but some actually reach the Earth's surface, and some of these strike us. Furthermore, the cosmic rays absorbed by the upper atmosphere create secondary radiation that can strike us on the surface. Our sun produces a prodigious amount of charged particles, which stream past the Earth. Some of these get captured in the Earth's magnetic field and are responsible for the northern and southern lights. Some of these reach the surface to increase our daily radiation dose. Some plants have the ability to concentrate radioactive substances, so that trees, for example, give off more radiation than the ground they grow on.
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(Part 7 of 7 follows)
© 2006 – Robert G. Williscroft