XKCD’s Helpful Radiation Chart

The webcomic XKCD has become one of those ubiquitous fixtures of geek life in the new century. In addition to drawing a wonderfully irreverent comic, however, xkcd’s creator Randall Munroe is an actual geek, with a physics degree and experience working on NASA’s Langley Research Center to prove it.

Unlike Josef Oehmen, however, that doesn’t make him an expert on nuclear engineering or radiation, something he cheerfully admits (as do I). However, while the effects of radiation on human and non-human animal tissue is complicated, the way to understand it starts with math, and that’s something that XKCD (rather famously) frequently touches on.

Munroe drew up this fantastically helpful chart at right, inspired by a much simpler one created by a friend of his who works on the research reactor at Reed. Ellen McManis is a Senior Reactor Operator and Munroe says something very amusing that reminds me that plenty of people work on this crap every day:

[McManis] has been spending the last few days answering questions about radiation dosage virtually nonstop (I’ve actually seen her interrupt them with “brb, reactor”).

For the record, received radiation dose is the sievert, or Sv. In case you’re not hip to the Metric system, in practical terms, there are two units you’ll see used in measuring received radiation dose, and they’re easy to mix up if you’re not good with symbols. The first is the “microsievert” (abbreviated as μSV or, uSv in internet shorthand — which is sort of a “science LOLcat.”). The second is the “millisievert,” abbreviated as mSv. This may be obvious to those of you who are hip to Metric, but: a sievert or Sv is one thousand millisieverts or mSv, and one million microsieverts or uSv. A millisievert is one thousand microsieverts.

Personally, I find this chart comforting. But, depending on your perspective, you may see it one of two ways, whether you live in an underground bunker in Slovakia or you’re a worker at the plant. Either the effects look a lot less scary, or look less scary than the rest of life — which you may not have realized was that scary.

Sort of a good news/bad news thing, right?

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