Saturday, 30 January 2010

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.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 25 January 2010

Dazzled and Deceived – Peter Forbes *****

Subtitled ‘Mimicry and camouflage’, this is a fascinating exploration of the use of visual trickery to disguise the nature of objects both in the living world and in the military. Along the way we trace the gradual growth of understanding of how creatures in the wild use mimicry to pretend to be what they aren’t (for example, imitating a poisonous creature, or an insect pretending to be a plant), or camouflage to become less visible against a particular background.
The two aspects of natural visual deceit that really struck me in reading it were the situations where something we all ‘know’ to be true isn’t – for instance, the chameleon uses its colour changing for display, not for camouflage – and in the incredible complexity of some butterfly mimicry where, for instance, the female of one species might look like any one of four very different nasty tasting butterflies.
What is also very engaging is the way that Peter Forbes carefully dissects the over-simple evolutionary idea of ‘the ones that looked more like the thing they were mimicking survived better’ to transform it into a modern understanding of the complex mechanisms behind such mimicry. All too often, the simplistic approach seems to apply too much choice to the concealed creature, as if it could decide to look like something else, where actually its ability to mimic depends on having certain characteristics (even if they weren’t previously used) already.
In the interlaced chapters on wartime camouflage, it is amazing just how amateurish early attempts at camouflage were – and how ‘facts’ about camouflage were derived with very little real experimental evidence. In the early days there were two opposing camps – the artists and the naturalists. Perhaps surprisingly given his background, Forbes doesn’t inherently side with the naturalists, but rather gives both sides credit for their contributions. Having said that, I’m surprised there isn’t more about the physics, as in the end camouflage is an attempt to manipulate photons – really neither artists nor naturalists were arguably the right people to sort it out.
There were one or two minor weaknesses. Because of this concentration on artists and naturalists, there was nothing about modern technology for hiding things, whether it’s stealth technology or invisibility cloaking. More significantly, although Forbes’s style is always approachable, I found a few of the biology sections a little heavy going. It wasn’t always easy to work out just what was supposed to be causing an effect. It’s not that Forbes doesn’t know his stuff, but rather than he knows it too well and doesn’t explain in quite enough detail to get the message across to the non-biologist. By comparison, the military sections were all very readable without that slight problem.
Overall a wonderful topic that really hasn’t been given enough coverage, especially given its importance in understanding the mechanisms of evolution better, and an excellent book. Highly recommended.
Review by Brian Clegg