PSS Summer '13


Radiation: What It Is, What You Need to Know

By Cynthia L. McVey

Dr. Robert Peter Gale ’66 and Eric Lax ’66

World–renowned radiation biology expert Dr. Robert Peter Gale ’66 and bestselling author Eric Lax ’66 have set out to demystify the science and dangers of radiation in Radiation: What It Is, What You Need to Know, a nonfiction book that’s been commended for its in–depth information on radiation and how it affects the earth.

Classmates and friends, the two were compelled to write the book to dispel the myths and false information being circulated following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. They begin with an historical account of the discovery of radiation and explain how humans themselves are all radioactive. “Sleep next to someone, and your bedmate will get a dose of radiation from you,” they write. They examine the myriad of radiation’s benefits, from safely sterilizing food to what’s described as a relatively low–risk fuel alternative of nuclear energy. They also outline what the real risks are and how they are derived, debunking fears of explosions at nuclear power plants as well as cautioning against blind faith in all forms of medical radiation.

A visiting professor of hematology at Imperial College in London, Gale is one of the world’s leading experts on radiation. His career has focused on the biology and therapy of bone marrow and blood cancers and he is widely recognized for his humanitarian activities, having led medical response teams to nuclear disasters, including the Chernobyl nuclear power station accident as well as those in Brazil and Armenia. In 2011, Gale was called to Japan to advise on medical consequences of the Fukushima nuclear power station accident. He is the author of 22 medical books and articles that have appeared in the press around the globe.

A New York Times best–selling author, Lax is the author of numerous books, including Life and Death on Ten West, an account of one of the foremost cancer research units in the world, at UCLA, of which Gale was chief clinical physician at the time. His book Woody Allen: A Biography, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat, about the development of penicillin, was a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year.

Below, Lax shares some insight on writing Radiation with Gale.

Q & A with Dr. Robert Peter Gale ’66

How knowledgeable on the topic were you before you wrote the book?
I didn’t have a clue. In many ways I was our perfect reader. I was afraid and had the same uninformed views and fears.

What were your goals in writing the book?
We wanted to share the facts about how radiation affects our lives in every way and clearly explain what the dangers are and what the benefits are. We tried to make it as accessible to readers as possible, even putting a summary section in the end for those who felt compelled to jump past the science.

How are we exposed to radiation?
About half of the radiation we normally receive comes from natural sources called background radiation. There are two major sources of background radiation: cosmic radiation, which comes from the universe, including our Sun (cosmic radiation increases when there are solar flares) and supernovas (that fling out particles when they explode); and terrestrial radiation, which comes from radionuclides in the Earth’s crust. An additional component comes from radiation in our body. We live in a sea of radiation.

The other half of the radiation we receive is from man– made sources such as consumer products and the nuclear fuel cycle, as well as medical tests and treatments.

What are some of the benefits of radiation?
Radiation saves lives every day. It makes smoke detectors work; helps illuminate some exit signs; tests the structural integrity of airplanes, bridges and skyscrapers; and sources of radiation are used to diagnose and treat cancers.

If you had to sum it up in one concise message, then, what would it be?
The things people worry about most are not the things we should worry about. For example, people worry about backscatter radiation from airport scanners, but insist that their doctor prescribe a CT scan ’just to make sure’ about something. In reality, it’s the computed tomography (CT) scan they should be more concerned with.

CT scans are the major contributor to our man–made radiation dose; they deliver about two times our normal annual natural and man–made radiation (often more for whole body scans). And the number of CT scans is rapidly rising (a three–fold increase between 1996 and 2010). In many parts of the country it is virtually impossible to leave the emergency department without a CT scan; some call it the new physical exam. We call unnecessary CTs a danger. Ask your physician why he/she is recommending a test and about the balance of risk and benefit and the dose of radiation you will receive.

So how has this newfound knowledge changed your life?
Having written the book, I realized I have some good practices and habits already – I don’t smoke and I use sunscreen. Ironically, for the first time in my life I had a CT necessary scan just after publishing the book!

Nightstand: What are you reading?

We asked students doing research on Seneca Lake this summer to tell us what they’re reading.

Geoscience and Environmental Studies double major

I am reading A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, which explores the lives of two Afghan women. I chose this book because in high school I read Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and I really enjoyed it, so his next book seemed like an obvious choice. It’s important to learn about different cultures and how their beliefs and norms differ from my own.

Geoscience major with double minor in Mathematics and Environmental Studies

I’m currently reading The Good War by Studs Terkel. This book provides firsthand accounts of World War II, depicting the struggles and triumphs of people who were involved in the war, whether in combat or working back in the States. Terkel illustrates the good, the bad and the gruesome of WWII in a way that you cannot find anywhere else.

Biology major and Health Professions minor

I am currently reading Solo: A Memoir of Hope, by Hope Solo who is the starting goalkeeper for the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team. She shares stories about her experiences as a professional female soccer player and the many obstacles she has overcome. As a player myself, I admire her perseverance and attitude because I know how hard it is to constantly be pushing yourself to get better.


Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.